What's the best way to intervene during a racist rant?

Stacey Eden has been hailed for standing up to defend a Muslim woman who was being harassed on a Sydney train.

Stacey Eden has been hailed for standing up to defend a Muslim woman who was being harassed on a Sydney train. Photo: Facebook

Viral videos of Australians being racist on public transport are becoming so common they are virtually their own genre. The latest contribution, filmed by a young woman, Stacey Eden, as she berated another white woman targeting a Muslim couple on a Sydney train last week has proved to be a global hit.

Eden, its undisputed star, has been hailed a "legend" for "defending" the couple who were being held responsible for everything from beheadings to paedophilia. The couple themselves, he sporting a full bead and she in traditional hijab, were silent.

Few people, certainly not me, would argue that it is wrong to stand up for a target of racism. It certainly beats the uncomfortable silence that is all too often on display in these vignettes of public bigotry.

And yet, both the contents of this video and the way it has been received have much to tell us about the equally depressing state of how we actually address racism in this country. To see what this is, it's helpful to analyse the footage the way we would an actual film.


In terms of the video itself, there are two things to unpack. The first is the trope of the Muslim woman as passive victim. From what we can see, the role of this particular woman - who seemed to be the primary target - was as someone desperately in need of rescue.

This is how Muslim women are regarded in general - passive victims of both a racist white society and an oppressive Muslim one. Their bodies are the battleground on which the supposed clash of civilisations between the west and Islam is fought.  

Indeed, a 2009 study found that, "the most common words used to describe Muslim women by journalists and politicians are 'segregated', 'beaten', 'insults', 'veil', 'freedom', 'religion', 'hatred', 'human rights' and 'extremism'."

Too often, what is missing is the voice of the Muslim woman herself. Unfortunately, this short video does nothing to dispel that myth: she is voiceless as the battle over her body rages around her.

This brings me to the second point.

In Eden's enthusiasm, she blurred the lines between supporting the target of an attack and actually speaking for her, and so unwittingly recreated our society's tendency to position Muslims as problems that need to be spoken about rather than people to speak to.

There are two lines in particular that do this.

The first is when Eden confidently claims that the Muslim woman wears hijab "for her own modesty". While it is true that hijab is a modesty requirement, Muslim women wear it for a multitude of reasons including faith and political identity.

No matter how well meaning, a white person authoritatively stating what drives any particular woman to observe hijab is incredibly patronising. The moment we claim to know what goes on in another person's head is the moment we go from supporting them to silencing them, and that is something that happens to Muslims, especially women, far too often already.

Writer and activist Celeste Liddle suggests that anyone wanting to show they will not tolerate racism should avoid speaking over those they are trying to help. She suggests saying things like, "I've been sitting here for ten minutes and I haven't seen this couple do anything to you so why are you attacking them?" or, "Why do the garments someone else is wearing bother you so much?"  

In other words, "Speak only from your own perspective."

The second time Eden overstepped the mark was when she referred to her as "this poor lady". Again, this rather infantilising statement renders Muslim women as mere objects of pity without an agency of their own.

This is not a criticism of Eden's decision to confront the attacker. Like many others, I'm impressed by her passion and compassion. Nonetheless, it is important we be mindful of any stereotypes we may perpetuate when we do decide speak up.

There are reasons Eden's video unfolded the way it did and that is because, like everyone else, she has been conditioned by a society that has long viewed racism primarily through the lens of good white people.

The stories that resonate loudest are the ones with a White Saviour who rescues people of colour from their ordeal. Films like The Help (where black women are literally given a voice by a young white writer) and 12 Years A Slave (where the main character's freedom is secured by a white abolitionist) reverberate widely, whereas those such as Selma, where people of colour are active agents of their own emancipation, just do not have the same appeal.

The bigoted views so comfortably espoused on our public transport are usually accompanied by a shared feeling of shame and embarrassment at the white person behaving badly, the antithesis of the White Saviour. Stacey Eden's video, in which she tells the offending woman to "have some respect" and "shut your mouth", flipped the script back, shifting the focus from the racist to the "legend".

All of which makes it worryingly clear that for any discussion of racism to have deep impact, many white people still feel the need to centre themselves in every story. This video went viral because, in offering a hero in the form of a young white woman, they were able to identify with her rather than the villainous racist.

But, to borrow a turn of phrase from Tony Abbott, racism isn't just about "goodies versus baddies". Even those with honourable intentions can unwittingly perpetuate stereotypes that ultimately do a disservice to those they are trying to help.

By all means, speak up in the face of racism. But please do so in a way that recognises the full humanity of those you are supporting, not one that reinforces their status as pitiful, silent victims in need of saving. This is no Hollywood movie.