How I Broke Into NBC's Think

I wanted to help to white allies level up to active bystanders.

Screenshot of my article. Original image credit: People visit a memorial and mural that honors George Floyd in Houston's Third Ward / Joe Raedle / Getty Images

ICYMI, it’s frigging March. Does anyone else feel like February basically just evaporated? Ain’t nobody got time for nuthin’ right now, so let’s get straight to it.

The pitch below probably took about 30 minutes — plus like two years of research. Don’t worry, it’s not as bad as it sounds.

Rather than stick to a niche, I rely on the superpower of ADHD and do pretty exhaustive research.

This allows me to find connections between research I’m doing across different projects. No wasted work for this gal, no sirree.

When I’ve got experts like Mx. Lena Tenney on the line, I let the conversation flow and discover new concepts and ideas like “active bystander,” which can seed other stories.

Finally, I also tend to write to process negative experiences. Gotta deal with the trauma, may as well get paid at the same time, right?

So by the time I pitched this piece to NBC’s Think, I’d already done a ton of research and interviews and written a bunch of pieces to help me work through my own shit, namely, exposure to microaggressions from so-called white allies.

With all that percolating, when Derek Chauvin murdered George Floyd, I thought: how is this ever going to stop happening when many white allies are still microaggressing all over the damn place and struggling to even call out water-cooler racism? Like, if you can’t stop Uncle Bob from saying the N-word on Thanksgiving, are you really gonna intervene to stop police brutality against Black people? How do we fix this? How can we all do better?

The Pitch

Only Active Bystander Culture Will Prevent Violence Against Black People 

When I saw clips from the video of George Floyd’s murder, one of my first reactions was: how could so many people be present but no one actually stop this from happening? 

We need to intentionally create a culture of active bystanders, in which people, especially those with dominant positionality and status, step in for those who are targeted by racism and violence.  

Active bystanderism can take many forms. It can be as simple as jumping in with “ouch” when a person makes a casually racist comment, wrote microaggressions expert Dr. Derald Wing Sue.  

By recording George Floyd’s murder, 17-year-old Darnella Frazier, who is now being harassed herself, was able to catalyze belated justice for him in a way that was bodily—if not emotionally—safe, for her.  

It can also look like “people who self-identify as progressives and liberals” putting their own “bodies on the line… using the elevation of their white body in service of the black and brown body,” cultural liberationist Anika Nailah told USAToday

All this runs counter to the Bystander Effect, a theory that psychologists John Darley and Bibb Latané developed in response to a 1968 murder with witnesses, holds that the larger the group of people the less likely it is that any one of them will intervene.  

As the Washington Post reported in 2016, Cornell University researchers found this to be true in medical emergencies: bystander help is rare and even rarer if the person suffering is Black. Even researchers who attempted to debunk the Bystander Effect admit “in‐group favoritism” may prevent people from helping people who are not “one of their own.”  

Anti-bias trainer, Mx. Lena Tenney, from the Kirwan Institute at Ohio State University believes that making being an active bystander second nature in low-stakes situations of casual racism increases the likelihood that bystanders will rise to extreme occasions, they said in a private message. 

Bad cops and racists and murderers will always exist but active bystanderism by so-called, often self-identitfied, allies may be our greatest hope to prevent more Black lives lost. 

To write this reported opinion piece, I'll talk to Lena Tenney (they've already agreed to an interview) and a human behavior specialist. As you may recall from a previous pitch, I'm a Black/Puerto Rican American freelancer based in Istanbul, who writes about the intersections of social justice, race, inclusion, and living as an expat. I have additional bylines in Thrillist, Vice, BBC Travel, as well as two forthcoming essays in the Washington Post. Hope this piece is a fit!

Side Notes

I initially pitched this piece to another editor, but it was Hilary who ended up working with me on the story. A lot of Black writers experience “tone policing” from editors, who (at best) may not necessarily share the same frame of reference for certain expressions or (at worst) may be prioritizing the comfort of white readers because #WhiteFragility. Hilary asked a few questions, but I felt like she was very committed to retaining the integrity of my unique voice.

Why Hilary Krieger Bought This Pitch

  • Had a timely news peg

  • Connected with editor’s own interests

  • Demonstrated access to expertise

What made Hilary assign the piece

“I’ve always been interested in the question of the responsibility of the bystander, and it was on my mind a lot after George Floyd’s death. When this pitch landed in the section’s inbox, I was like, ‘This writer read my mind!’”

Her favorite part of the finished piece

“I think it does a great job of weaving the personal experience and individual voice with expert perspective and research that gives a broader view of the issue.”

What makes Hilary go, “Wow, I want to edit this!” when she sees a pitch

“That it’s timely and original and has a strong argument. Bonus points if it’s counterintuitive or willing to take on sacred cows.”

Hilary’s top 3 pitching tips for POC writers

  1. News pegs are key — identifying a pressing topic in the current conversation and finding a way to latch onto it with a new angle and insight, and to do that QUICKLY

  2. Demonstrate how you’re the best person to write this story — how your personal experiences and unique perspective will give greater strength to the piece, and how you'd think about drawing on that.

  3. Include in the pitch a sense of your voice and sensibility — and noting your willingness to be flexible on timing, edits, and additional research is always appreciated.

Hilary is interested in pitches from more BIPOC writers for NBC’s Think. You can reach her at Hilary.Krieger@nbcuni.com.