Retaliation Nation: Sometimes I'm Afraid to Speak Out Against Crazy, Racist, Unjust Behavior

I'd blame it all on Mercury being in retrograde, except crazy, racist--or crazy and racist--seems to cross my path on the regular. However, despite the regularity, I still don't know whether it's better to speak up or if it's better to just be quiet and go along with the behavior.

We tell kids to stand up and not be a bystander when they see bullying behavior occurring, but in the real world where people are liable to do anything, we all know speaking up can come with consequences.

On Friday I rode the city bus with a woman who began praising Christopher Dorner because, as she put it, now white people are on notice that "we black people ain't gonna take your racist shit no more."

I just sat there trying not to engage with her...I was afraid to flat out disagree with her about Dorner because what if she was truly nuts and decided that she was the one chosen by his ghost to take Dorner's revenge plot to the next level? What if she had a knife and stabbed me? I know, it sounds TOTALLY paranoid that my mind went there, but I was raised hearing about my mom's experience of walking past a crazy dude who ended up stabbing the two girls walking a few yards behind her simply because he thought the girls were laughing at him--they weren't, they were sharing a funny story about something else.

Truly, you never know what the heck is going on with people and what will set them off, so I hoped this woman on the bus would just lose interest and shut up--or else get off the bus at the very next stop--but nooo...she settled comfortably into her seat and decided to dig into another topic. As I recounted on Twitter:

Fortunately I only had to ride with her for a couple more minutes before my bus stop came up. I was so relieved to get off. I had all these things I wanted to say to her--I didn't tell her how inappropriate her comments were, that all white men aren't rapists, and that Dorner is not a hero. I wanted to, but I kept my mouth shut. Why? Fear. What will this person who seems "off" do if I speak up?

Tonight at the grocery store, I couldn't keep silent about the behavior of a couple of strangers.

Two guys in their early 20s were standing uncomfortably close to me in the checkout line. How close? As the cashier rang my stuff up, these guys were less than a half-step to my left. Even my own sons don't stand that dang close to me in the checkout line. But I tolerated it because of the maxim that when people are willing to break social and cultural norms--and not standing all up on someone in line is one--then you know they're not all "there."

Yet when it was time to pay, I'd had enough. I didn't feel comfortable with them standing THISCLOSE to me, watching me swiping my debit card in the machine and entering my pin number--I don't need another fraud alert coming from my bank anytime soon. So I asked them very nicely if they could move back a little bit...and they lost it.

Next thing I knew, they were calling me a "fucking fat black bitch," told me I'm a nobody and "You fucking wish we were with you, you fat black bitch" and on and on and on. I was buying potato chips for my sons and these guys spied 'em as the cashier was putting them in a bag, so I got, "Go buy some more potato chips, you fat bitch."

The cashier told them they had indeed been standing too close to me, but because she was black, they didn't take that too kindly. They proceeded to say:

They were then waiting for me in the parking lot and cursed and harassed me till I got in my car and left.

Because I've been called far worse things than what those guys said I used to actually pride myself on my ability to never cry--when I was in high school, one of my goals was to cultivate such a degree of detachment that I'd feel nothing at all--but the downside of that is when you harden yourself as a protection against hurt and pain, when you make feeling nothing your goal, it becomes impossible to truly love or feel love.

I've worked really hard over the years to get past such a misguided survival skill, and so leaving the store parking lot, I managed to drive only a couple of blocks before I had to pull over because I was crying.

I spoke up about behavior that was violating my personal space and got verbally assaulted for it. And for every instance that I go out on a limb and speak up, there too many others that I don't. Fear of just such retaliation keeps me from speaking up.

This afternoon at my local park, for example, I watched a mom sitting in the bleachers at the baseball field slap her toddler and yell, "you better sit your stupid fucking ass down...god I wish you weren't fucking born"--all because the child was having a hard time sitting still next to her.

I didn't do or say anything and none of the other moms sitting there made a move or said anything, either. Sure, we all gave each other the undercover "Girl, did you just see that?" eye, but none of us wanted to risk getting cussed out or physically threatened. We were bystanders.

When I don't speak up, it really weighs on my conscience. I tell myself that I don't want to be on my death bed feeling like I was a coward in the face of behavior that degrades another person's humanity. I don't want to turn into the equivalent of one of those people who never calls the cops simply because she's scared someone who's doing something wrong might find out who dialed 911.

I really wonder, where should I--where do you?--draw the line between personal safety and standing up for what's just and right?


I wrestle with this issue all the time, every day. There is so much truly bad behavior in the world and I used to stand up for others w/o second thought. My mother laughingly referred to me as "Defender of Underdogs" when I was a child. But today, sadly, I stop and weigh the possible consequences. Many people are carrying weapons and our society has failed most of us so badly that too many loose cannons are running around, looking for an excuse to hurt someone. I don't want to die senselessly. Where, indeed, do you draw the line?

I am horrified, disgusted and so sad that you were targeted by those vile people, Liz. You are one of the truly good, caring and beautiful people, inside and out, and it makes me so angry that they hurt your feelings. Knowing that their souls are sick doesn't really help, and that's terribly unfair.

As for the woman on the bus - just ignorant. And that is sad and dangerous, too.
girlll, this is crazy, i am so sorry that this happened to you - and happens to people EVERY DAY. you are freakin' awesome for telling those crazy ass boys to back up and i love you and think you're amazing.
Anonymous said…
Dear Liz,

Hopefully you are fine. Hopefully you are well. The described behavior of these people is simply shameful. You are right. One simply does not know how a person will react in any given situation. That's why we choose to interact or not interact with people to gain experience resulting in insight of ourselves first and then into the situation. With this experience and insight, wisdom could develop. Since we are young, this experience comes with a cost. Do I react. Do I fear. Do I react with fear. Is my life worth this incident.

We are taught as children how to react to this bullying or outspoken behavior of others. But as adults, we can
continue this teaching or learn in an adult way, possibly a different way, on how to deal with others. This is the real world and anything goes. I don't think in our lifetime we will see the end of discrimination. In a Social Psychology textbook I read that discrimination is taught generation after generation after generation. Love you always. And keep on smiling. You are such a wonderful, sweet person. Nelly V Monsalve.

Los Angelista said…
Thank you for your kind words--You are indeed the Defender of Underdogs! It's so terrible that we have to think about the extremes of what someone might do--and I write so much about bullying and how students have to speak up, but surely, they have these same worries. Sigh.
Liz Dwyer said…
Samimi, It was TOTALLY crazy...I was still really upset about it yesterday. I think it may be part of why I haven't been able to sleep. Love you, too. xoxo's.

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