Oh no, not a “white saviour”

Hey, it turns out it actually is the right thing to do to sit still when people are being verbally abused and do nothing to intervene. I know, I’m surprised too! I thought it wasn’t! I thought it was pretty assholish to sit like a lump and stare while people are given shit by a stranger in a public place. But nope! Nope nope nope! That’s the correct, non-white-savior thing to do. If you speak up you’re denying agency to the people being abused. Leave them alone, you colonialist!

It’s Ashitha Nagesh who sets us straight about this, in the Independent.

You may have already seen the video from Australia that has gone viral today. It shows a middle-aged racist in a train ranting at a young Muslim couple, making some confusing links between the woman’s hijab and the Islamic State, Al-Shabaab’s attack in Garissa, and Muhammad “marrying a six-year-old” or something. She made no sense, as hardline racists never do.

But cue superwoman Stacey Eden! A white knight in shining armour swoops in to save the day, protecting the couple from the onslaught of abuse being hurled at them from across the carriage.

“She wears it for herself, OK? She wears it because she wants to be modest with her body, not because of people like you who are going to sit there and disrespect her.”

Isn’t it good Stacey was there? The couple were naturally mute and incapable of independent thought. Hell, they don’t even seem to have names, judging from most reports. They needed Stacey to save them.

Except… they didn’t.

Personally I found this video uncomfortable, but not for the reasons most other people seemed to. Yes I was disgusted by the racism, but I also felt patronised. It is just an incredibly patronising video. The couple are treated like children who can’t possibly be expected to deal with a crap situation by themselves.

I apologize. I apologize for all white people everywhere (except the ones who are wearing hijabs on trains). I apologize for all white saviors who try to help when some stranger gets abusive toward a woman wearing a hijab. I’m so ashamed of us. When will we learn to sit still and do nothing when people are being abused right in front of us? We’re so meddlesome.

The problem with videos like this is that they perpetuate the idea of the helpless minority needing a “white saviour” to stick up for them – and the attention has shifted so strongly onto Stacey that we don’t even know who this couple is or how they actually felt about the whole situation.

So true. It would be way better to perpetuate the idea of the callous indifference of the population at large to xenophobic bullying. If only there were more of that kind of thing!

Sarcasm fit over. What a shitty article. I do think what the “white savior” said was the wrong thing to say, because she’s not a mind-reader and she doesn’t know why the woman wears hijab. She should have just said hey, stop that, leave them alone, back off. But do I think she did a bad thing by intervening? Hell no. What Nagesh says is complete bullshit. Being verbally attacked by a stranger in a public place is a very intimidating experience, and knowing that some of the other strangers around are on your side is not a bad thing. Support in a situation like that is not a bad thing. People just sitting there gulping like fish makes it all worse. Nagesh is completely wrong, and ill-natured to boot.

Solidarity is not a bad thing. It’s a great thing, it’s one of the best things. It’s ridiculously precious to find fault with it for contrived reasons.


  1. arthur says

    The Muslim man in the video, Hafeez Ahmed Bhatti, has said on his facebook feed:

    “This sort of thing has happened before, but you try to ignore it…God bless Stacey Eden who supported us”

  2. RJW says


    I agree, apparently, we’re damned if we do and we’re damned if we don’t. If I didn’t know better, I’d say Nagesh is expressing some rather ‘racist’ patronising opinions herself, however as we all know, only White people are racist. The author also conflates anti-Islamic attitudes with racism, either ignorantly or deliberately.
    5/5 stars for arrogant, self-rightgeous smugness.

  3. Matt says

    It seems that something Ashitha doesn’t understand is that, it’s not just about defending this couple. It’s about showing the racist that someone else is not going to tolerate that behavior.

    While out at bars with my friends, I regularly intervene when people make unwelcome advances on my friends. Most often it’s men making advances on female friends, but sometimes men making advances on male friends, too. These people can all take care of themselves and don’t need me to do anything. I have women friends that go out to bars all the time and know how to deal with it. That’s not the point. The point is to tell the aggressor, “hey, asshole, if you keep this up, someone else is going to have a problem with you.” Building unacceptance of these behaviors in peer culture is critical to creating change. The purpose is to let them know that if they keep that shit up, someone other than the “victim” is going to fight back. In my experience this is enough to make harassers back off. They are only interested in harassment so long as it is easy and goes unchallenged. This is especially true if the person challenging them is perceived as having equal or greater privilege and status. That’s why it’s so critical for allies to speak up.

    Of course, I do agree that allies should not take away the voices of those who are marginalized. We should seek to diffuse these situations, not speak on the behalf of others. But from the couples’ response, it sounds like that wasn’t the most important thing on their minds in that moment.

  4. M can help you with that. says

    Some of the phrasing quoted sounds a bit less than ideal — like Eden is speaking for the woman, rather than just objecting to the harassment. “Why the hell do you care what someone else is wearing, and who the hell are you to object?” could have avoided risking that appearance. But it remains that she was standing up to a harasser in a way that the people she was defending seem to appreciate, which is the bottom line.

  5. says

    I don’t think it is all that obvious.

    If I were in the position of the Muslim couple, I would find the situation embarrassing. But the intervention would be even more embarrassing. On the other hand, I would certainly appreciate intervention if violence erupted.

    Different people are going to react in different ways. Maybe we shouldn’t second-guess.

  6. says

    Neil Rickert at #8 is right that we shouldn’t second-guess. But sometimes you have to *do* something. And so long as it’s for the right reasons and directed to right goals, then I think it’s defensible.

    It’s not necessarily Stacey’s Eden’s fault that news organisations like the Daily Mail framed the incident and her role in it in the way they did. It’s not surprising that they illustrated their report with lots of pictures of Stacey and textually airbrushed out the actual recipients of the abuse. They know their audience.

    Nagesh is wrong, from the point of view of political principle, but I wouldn’t be comfortable with dismissing her feeling of being patronised. Equally, let’s not take her to be speaking for anyone else in articulating that feeling.

    The ethics of intervention are not straightforward. I’ve been in situations where my instinct has been to challenge certain behaviour; when I have, I haven’t always in retrospect felt it was a good idea; when I haven’t, I have sometimes regretted it. You have to make a judgment about whether intervening will make the situation better, or worse, and you won’t always get that judgment right. You do have to consider whether others would welcome your intervention, or whether they would prefer to deal with the situation in their own way.

    I mean, solidarity can fail if it happens entirely without regard to the needs or wishes of the people with whom you are hoping to show solidarity. But sometimes in an emergency it’s not possible to find out what form helping should take, before you have to act.

    I remember intervening in an incident in the street where a bloke was screaming aggressively at a woman, and slamming the shop shutters by the side of her head. I positioned myself far enough away that I could avoid getting attacked myself, but close enough that I could be heard, and said, “don’t hurt her”. The man turned on me, wanted to know what business it was of mine. I said, “I don’t know what’s going on here, but think about what you’re doing”. Now, I knew nothing whatsoever about the couple, their relationship, or the nature of the dispute. Could I have made things worse? As it was, my intervention redirected the man’s anger, and he took himself and the woman off in a taxi. I hope things calmed down. But I don’t know that they did. I hope I did the right thing. But I don’t know that I did. Should I have called the police instead? Should I have physically restrained the man (yeah, right)? The woman didn’t express any kind of view about my intervention, but it’s entirely possible she thought I was some do-gooder as well.

    I think it’s useful to discuss cases like this, to see if we can learn from them. One thing I’d say is that a demonstration of solidarity doesn’t have to mean taking over completely, or speaking for the victims (I’m not referring directly to Stacey Eden here, though I think there are elements of this in her case). Depending on what is going on, sometimes all you need to do is say, “are you OK?” Or initiate a conversation with the subjects of the abuse, so it is clear they are not on their own. There are lots of things you can do, in fact, that’d don’t substitute your voice for another’s.

  7. says

    Matt’s comment at #5 is spot on.

    A slightly different angle: There’s a good episode of The Office (UK version), where a casual expression of racism is challenged by a white member of staff. The racist asks the only black member of staff whether they are offended. They say they aren’t. The challenger then says something along the lines of, “you think it’s only black people who are offended by racism?”. When I watched that, I remember thinking that it was an important and interesting (but not uncomplicated) point for the programme to make (although the language of “offence” isn’t my bag).

  8. sonofrojblake says

    so long as it’s for the right reasons and directed to right goals, then I think it’s defensible.

    Sometimes, intent is magic?

    Any criticism of Eden’s exact phrasing seem churlish to me. Criticise my phrasing here, if you like – I had time to sit and think about what I wrote before I hit “Post Comment”. Eden was in the moment, probably (if she’s anything like me in a situation like that) in a heightened state, pulse pounding, shaking a bit from the adrenaline. She did the right thing, and better still, for the right reasons.

    Ashitha Nagesh felt patronised? Good. If your considered, written, published response to this incident is criticism of Eden, then overall I’d rather you had unpleasant feelings about it.

  9. Holms says

    Isn’t the author, in sticking up for the muslim’s agency, ignoring her own advice? She should let the muslim woman stand up for herself against the bigoted bullshit, and also against her would-be defender for being so patronising!

  10. polishsalami says

    This will give a little insight into what has happened to security on Sydney trains:

    When the Liberal Party (Australia’s GOP) took over in 2011, they removed most of the State Transit guards and handed responsibility to NSW Police. With no security presence on most trains, you are basically left to your own devices. And it seems to be getting worse:

    Note the ‘high-visibility policing’ bullshit — the police only turn up to arrest somebody.

  11. polishsalami says

    Australia has become something of a world leader in public transport bigotry. The curious thing being that nearly all of the attacks (at least those that made headlines) were carried out by women. Some recent examples:

    Here we have two young women beating into an elderly indigenous man (Warning — Racially-Motivated Violence)

  12. John Horstman says

    I would always rather risk sounding like a patronizing, imperious asshole (“White Knight”) by intervening on behalf of someone in a vulnerable position than risk letting the harassment/abuse/assault stand unchallenged and possibly escalate to even more harmful forms. I see, “They don’t need you to intervene,” as a kind of colorblind racism (or genderblind sexism) – it pretends that the agency of people in marginal positions isn’t more heavily constrained than that of those in privileged positions, so it’s as easy for people in marginal positions to self-advocate as those in privileged positions. It’s not; the power dynamics in a kyriarchy just don’t work like that. Anyone intervening should of course try to be sensitive to the power and identity dynamics at play, and careful consideration of one’s words is desirable (though perhaps not always possible in the moment); we should definitely work to help people learn to intervene in the least problematic ways, not try to stop bystander intervention at all. Personally, I try to give the person or people being harassed/abused/assaulted an opportunity to handle it zirself/themselves, and I try to look for nonverbal help-seeking cues, but when it comes down to it, I think a possible microaggression is preferable to a definite macroaggression, so I’m going to err on the side of not letting things like this stand without repudiation.

    I’m much in agreement with Matt‘s #5 and Dan Bye‘s #10, particularly this part of Dan Bye‘s comment:

    I mean, solidarity can fail if it happens entirely without regard to the needs or wishes of the people with whom you are hoping to show solidarity. But sometimes in an emergency it’s not possible to find out what form helping should take, before you have to act.

    Harm reduction is the guiding ethic; decrying all intervention becasue it is absolutely sometimes problematic is letting the perfect be the enemy of the good. It’s the exact same principle that leads me to vote for Democrats who can win instead of Green civil-libertarian socialists with whom I agree much more but who have no chance at winning, to connect this to another recent thread. (That said, I’ve voted straight Democrat in only one election; the determination has to be made on a case-by-case basis, dependent on my estimation of the likely outcomes, which is also true of bystander intervention.) Nagesh’s criticism is important – it informs us of her perspective and reminds us that intervention can be interpreted as patronizing and agency-denying, which should prompt us to keep that in mind and help inform our mode of intervention. We don’t have to agree with all of her points or conclusions to still take something valuable from her perspective. I think the categorical condemnation of the article (“What Nagesh says is complete bullshit.” “Nagesh is completely wrong, and ill-natured to boot.”) is exaggerated; this is a complex issue where any action or inaction is potentially problematic due to contextual factors beyond our control. The perfect isn’t an option becasue we (all of us, everywhere) live in racist, sexist societies, so we’re left trying to make snap judgements about the least bad option in the moment. Even when we make the “right” decision, we might still cause splash damage, and we should acknowledge that and try to mitigate it, not dismiss the criticisms entirely.

  13. johnthedrunkard says

    ‘She wears it for herself….’ is grossly ‘matronizing’ and presumptuous. It really isn’t much better than saying: ‘she wears it because her in-laws will beat her if she doesn’t.’

    There is no evidence to support either line. BUT, in the heat of the moment, in the process of speaking up against harassment? I’ll give Eden a lot room for error.

    Perhaps Eden’s real sin, in the eyes of Nagesh, is spoiling the victimhood photo-op for future Offended Ones.

  14. Ed says

    The specific words matter less than the act of standing up to an aggressive bigot in public. Assuming the majority of riders were white (given the demographics of Australia), the woman being attacked may have been intimidated because she didn’t know if anyone cared about what was happening.

    It is often harder for a marginalized, outnumbered person to say “shut up and leave me the hell alone you asshole!” than it is for a member of the dominant group being harassed by a fellow member. As others have pointed out, this was a public space and anyone there would have a right to object to abusive, disruptive behavior of any kind going on around them.

    It’s imposible to take a “mind your own business” objection seriously on a train where you have no choice but to hear whatever is going on around you.

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