Why We Should Stop Turning People Into Victims
In one episode, a Muslim woman is denied service at a restaurant and verbally assaulted by a cashier because of her religion. In another, a grocery bagger with Down Syndrome is berated by a customer. In another situation, a group of teenagers harass a homeless man on a public street.
While the viewers at home know that the scenes playing out are completely staged, the bystanders at these public places do not. That’s what makes "What Would You Do" so intriguing. It allows us to see how the people around us would react to seeing a grave injustice take place in front of their eyes. The show is designed to make the audience desperately want to see passers-by step in to rescue the people being harassed.
I recently had my own "What Would You Do"-type situation, only the lesson I took away from it was not the one I thought I would learn.
Just like John Quiñones does on the real show, I’ll back up and set the scene first.
I happen to live in a fraternity house. And one of the not-so-unexpected pleasures of living on the Greek row is that your neighbors often throw parties that keep you up at night. Different guys have different ways of approaching situations like these. Some will try to sneak into the party next door. Some will find a bar or a club to go to downtown. Others will even head to the library to try to study, since they know the “rager” next door precludes them from getting any work done in their rooms.
On this particular night, a fraternity brother of mine and I chose to sit out on our roof, hanging out, talking about the beginning of the school year, and yes, being amused by the drunken antics of our classmates as they stumbled down the row. This is how we chose to spend the last few hours of our Friday night, and it is where my "WWYD" moment took place.
As the party next door started to wrap up and people made their way out onto the streets to go home, I noticed two girls standing apart from the stream of people leaving the fraternity house. And almost as soon as I looked in their direction, they started to kiss.
Having spent more nights on the row than I would like to admit, this didn’t seem out of the ordinary to me. If I had a nickel for every time I’ve seen an opposite-sex couple having a PDA outside of a fraternity party I’d probably be somewhere in Mitt Romney’s tax bracket. Fraternity parties are where people go to make connections and have a good time, so I wasn’t surprised to see two people a couple stories below me making out.
What did shock me was the way I saw partygoers react to these two girls' obvious affection for one another. Almost immediately after they began kissing, there were two drunken males trying to break them up and making lewd comments that even I could hear from 20 feet in the air.
While I was taken aback by this, I didn’t really have time to stop and digest what was happening below me, because as soon as those two left, three more came up and did the same thing, then a few more to replace them, and this cycle of harassment seemed to go on until a dozen different college-aged guys stopped and said hateful things to these two girls while trying to make advances on them.
Now, believe it or not, I did start to make my way down from my roof to stop what was happening. I walked to the side and was halfway down the ladder before I thought about the other half of what was unfolding before me. You see, there was more taking place on that sidewalk than a bunch of guys being obnoxious.
The two female characters in this story were, for lack of a better phrase, “just not havin it.” I couldn’t hear exactly what was said between them, but I do know that every one of the guys who had confidently strutted over to break up this couple walked away with his head down and his tail between his legs.
I didn’t make it to the bottom of that ladder, because I didn’t need to. These two girls had it handled.
If you watch "What Would You Do," read the morning paper or watch the nightly news, you encounter a lot of stories about victims. These are all tales of people who are singled out because of their ethnicity, sexual orientation, religion or some other characteristic that makes some people hate them. What we don’t see very often are stories where people refuse to be victims.
My "What Would You Do" moment didn’t teach me to be less sensitive to discrimination (because obviously it still exist in this world, and a lot of it isn’t something that can simply be brushed off). It didn’t teach me to sit back and watch injustices (because I would intervene in a situation when I thought someone was in trouble). What it did teach me is that not everyone is a victim, that the homophobia, racism, etc. that some people face on a daily basis doesn’t automatically make them roll up into a ball and cry.
As I saw those two girls who had just been accosted by no fewer than a dozen people walk off hand in hand with smiles on their faces, I learned that instead of telling stories exclusively about people's disempowerment, maybe we should mix in a few stories about people who overcome.