To The Non-Racist White People, Please Just Be The First

I was on the Max today, like any other normal day, on my way home from work. The normality, however, was shattered when I found myself on the receiving end of a white woman’s racist tirade; never before have I been called a n****r so many times in one setting.

The Max was packed, standing room only. I was standing next to the door, trying to make efficient use of my time by reading through a legal brief in a case that I’ve been working on. We came to a stop and I stepped off so people could exit, and then I allowed those who were getting on at the stop to get on in front of me so that they could find a spot. A white woman, who was waiting to get on, just waited, refusing to take me up on my offer to let her go first. I didn’t think anything of it and I stepped back on the Max and she entered after me. Because of how little room there was, we were forced to stand about six inches apart.

I returned to reading my brief, nearly oblivious to the world around me. After a few minutes, I hear the woman say “Stop touching me.” I glance down thinking that maybe my briefcase bumped into her, but there’s still space between us so she can’t be talking to me. But then I hear her mumbling what sounds like n****r under her breath. I assume I misheard, so I choose to ignore it and go back to reading. Unfortunately, I didn’t mishear. She continues to mumble n****r several more times.

“Excuse me, did you say something to me?” I asked. She turns to me and asks what am I reading. Not wanting to engage her, other than trying to stop her from saying n****r, I respond that it’s for work and I go back to reading. “For work, huh. Probably can’t even read n****r,” she mumbles as she turns away from me.

At this point, a man (who appears to be white) sitting in front of her tells her that she needs to keep her thoughts to herself. “Nobody wants to hear that,” he says. She says something back to him, but I’m just trying to make sure the situation doesn’t get worse so I quietly thank the man and I go back to reading.

A couple minutes later, she screams “Don’t grab me!” At this point, I’m getting nervous. I instantly start thinking about what this will look like when and if the police arrive. Will the other passengers believe that I haven’t done anything? What if they don’t? And who will the police believe: America’s favorite victim, the white woman, or me, the black guy. I try to step as far away from her as I can on a crowded Max. I noticeably make it clear that I’m holding the brief in my left hand (the side closest to her) and my right hand is in my pocket, so there’s no way I could have grabbed her.

Her latest outburst is followed with several more uses of n****r, and she then starts telling the man who intervened that a n****r grabbed her on the shoulder. I truly don’t know how to respond so I just continue to ignore her. She then turns to me and calls me a n****r to my face.

“You need to calm down.” I say.

“You can’t tell me what to do n****r.” She answers.

“You need. To watch. Your mouth.” I finally say, through gritted teeth, struggling to stay calm.

She then snatches my hand asking if that was the hand I touched her with. “Don’t touch me,” I say, pushing her hand away. Even as I push her hand away, I’m hyper concerned about what the other passengers are thinking. Am I going to look aggressive? Did I use too much force? She tries to grab my hand again and I pull it away. The man who intervened stands up and offers her his seat to try and get her away from me. His offer then turns more into a demand. “You need to knock it off. Sit the f*** down and leave him alone.” She refuses and continues to shout her racist vitriol. All the while, I’m just trying to ignore her and read the brief that is now shaking violently with emotion in my hands.

Finally, about five minutes after her initial outburst, the man to my right suggests swapping places with me to create some distance. I thank him and switch places. The woman continues to shout about n****rs and tells me that I’m not even a person. Eventually, two to three other people speak up, telling the woman to shut up and stop. Apparently, they had been encouraged by the other two men’s decisions to intervene. The woman cursed at them until she got off at the next stop.

Through all of this, what bothers me the most is not the raving racism of this crazy woman. It’s the silence and indifference of the 20+ people who witnessed the entire situation taking place. After the woman got off, a few people told me they were sorry that happened and some made comments about the woman being crazy, but nearly every one of those people (mostly white) chose not to intervene during the situation, even though they knew the situation was wrong.

And for obvious reasons, my options were limited. Any decision I made could instantly paint me as the angry and aggressive black male, and cause the passengers to turn against me. It reminds me of the scene in Black Panther when T’Challa has captured Klaue after the car chase. As he’s contemplating striking Klaue, Okoye stops him by reminding him that the world is watching. As black people, the world is always watching—and judging—our reaction; even more harshly than the original wrongdoing. Instead of judging police brutality, the world judges Kaepernick and BLM. Instead of criticizing trump’s encouragement of violence, they question Congresswoman Maxine Water’s “civility.” One poor reaction on my part could transform the woman into the victim and myself into the bad actor.

Because of this, minorities need the assistance of allies. Yet each of those individuals on the Max were content to let someone else step in, and if no one stepped in, so be it. They were all waiting for the other person to act; no one wanted to be the “first.” I’m thankful for the two who did act. But to the rest of the passengers, stop waiting for someone else to speak up. Stop waiting for someone else to do something.

White people if you’re wondering what you can do, it’s simple. Please just be the “first.”

40 Replies to “To The Non-Racist White People, Please Just Be The First”

  1. I’m sorry this happened. I spoke up on the max by a guy who was harassing some other women, and was attacked by the person causing the problem. I’m a woman, he was probably in his late 20s. No one else said or did anything. Unfortunately it’s a scary situation for all involved because the victim and the bystanders do not know what the instigator will do. I don’t ride the max anymore.

    1. Unfortunately, I think Julie is right: people are afraid. As a society we used to stand up for one another, but the majority have gotten soft, allowing the few to control the many. We need to be courageous in the face of fear and do what’s right, taking back our society in the process. Being self-centered is a short game and never benefits us in the long term; we need each other.

      1. We need to push through that fear and act anyway. You may have heard the writing (I’ll shorten it) first they came for the Jews but I am not a Jew so I did nothing, then they came for the lesbians, bit I am not Russian lesbian so I did nothing………..then they came for me and no one wad left to speak up for me. SPEAK UP.

      2. I have on occasion been the first to speak. As a matter of fact, the first time I was first was when I was seven years old. My mom and I had flown to Texas to visit family. They were fully insconsed in their racisim. As usual. I, after hearing this for about an hour got a bit peeved and in my childish way tried to explain that we were all alike. I went on to give an example of a grape and a raisin being the same on the inside. Well, suffice it to say my family thought I was impudent and foolish and told me to sit down and be quiet. They, to this day, haven’t changed. But neither have I. I fight to this day against racism any way I can, every way I can.
        I hate, yes a strong word, that in the 21st century humans are still detrimentally concerned with the color of someone’s skin. I’m 64years old and proud to be humanist.
        I wish the best for you in the future and commend you for your restraint during that encounter.
        Blessings to you my friend.

    2. The people did not respond because that is who they are. For the most part people do not like confrontation, it makes them nervous, they fear what is going to happen next. I’m sorry that 1 white woman made it a race situation for you, but that is not why the rest of the passengers didn’t speak up. It’s too bad it has to be a race situation.

    3. Julie, I think you raise a good point. I think bystanders should always ask whether intervention is unsafe or merely uncomfortable. If the latter, I would hope one would risk discomfort to help someone in need. If their is a safety risk, then I agree that intervention should look much different. Thanks for taking the time to read and share your story.

      1. With the prevalence of guns in our society, it’s made people even more afraid to speak up or take action. I’m so ashamed of this world we’ve created and I truly fear for my grandchildren’s futures if we don’t get a handle on the violence run amok.

        1. Why would you need the person need to give you tips on how to respond to a situation like this? You’re waiting for the victim to give you advice on how to use your commonsense, judgement, and conscience to help a fellow human being who is being verbally abused? 1. Speak up. 2. Place yourself between the abuser and victim if that seems like a viable option. 3. Switch seats. 4. Report to authorities: bus driver, transit police, or call the non emergency police number for assistance. 5. Video tape and document with your phone. 6. Ask fellow passengers for assistance. Don’t ask the victim for tips on how to stop a verbal attack on them.

          BTW He already gave the only advice he had to offer: Be First. Be first to speak up.

          Clearly, you are a sheep and won’t speak up anyway, so why bother commenting?

  2. “The world will not be destroyed by those who do evil, but by those who watch them without doing anything. ”
    -Albert Einstein

  3. Luckily, I am a taller than average and little weightier than I should be, white woman. I am outspoken and have intervened in situations like this before. Even then I have been afraid. I can understand the fear. Women must constantly be on alert for many reasons. If you are a woman and afraid but want to help, my advice would be to make eye contact with the people around you, then state your dilemma. “I really want to help stop this but cannot do it on my own, can you help me, if we stand together, we can stop the bullying/hate/ignorance.” It is worth a try and you protect yourself and help others.

    1. Jen Rae, I think that’s fantastic advice. Whether you’re a man or woman, if you are concerned that you’re putting yourself in danger just by intervening, then that should tell you that the situation certainly isn’t safe for the victim and there is even more of a need for you to intervene. And soliciting support from other bystanders is an excellent way to address the issue. Thanks for taking the time to read and for sharing.

  4. What I don’t get is why you let this idiot ussing a word get under your skin so much. Yes, it’s a horrible word and the lady is dispicable for using it, but your reaction is what gives the word power. Why do you care so much about a word that a crazy lady said? It’s like my 5 year old trying to push my buttons and get a reaction. Your such a victim that your upset that others didn’t intervene on your behalf? Perhaps if you didn’t give the word so much power over you it will eventually go away and they’ll have to find some other way to ruffle your feathers.

    1. I don’t believe it was the word. Read the article again. You missed the point that he did nothing and was afraid that others or if police were called what might happen to him. This is why CK kneels!

    2. It’s not (as much) about the word and it is a threat to him. This white woman was accusing him of grabbing and touching her. If police were to get involved his life would be in danger because of this woman’s racism. He very much stands to become a victim at the hands of the police. You’re the kind if person who didn’t intervene, because you’re not willing to open your eyes to how dangerous life can be for black and brown people in this country.

    3. I don’t think it’s an issue of giving a word power here. That word symbolizes 100s of years of white oppression Injustice and violence, emotional and physical. And that old woman knew it and wasn’t afraid to use it to show that white supremacy is still in power.
      I feel certain that your comment was received with offense by the author and readers of color. I don’t know what your skin color is, but suggesting that blocking out symbols of very the real existence of white supremacy might be the key to making it go away is extraordinarily naive. That’s like saying that black folks taking offense 2 white folks calling them the n-word for the last 400 years is the reason that racism still exists..

    4. Wow, way to completely miss the point and victim blame. Did you skip over the part where he said he initially ignored her SEVERAL times? Of course you did. Typical.

    5. It wasn’t the word that made him upset, it was the fact that she started saying he was touching her and she was putting her hands on him to get make him touch her. She was trying to get others involved to attack him. That was the real problem for him because others could have attacked him if they believed he was doing what she was yelling. He was ignoring her until she touched him.

    6. The woman did more than just use the n word. She kept accusing him of touching and grabbing her. She could potentially have gotten him arrested and/or beaten by police due to her false accusations.

      1. Does that happen? With all of those witnesses? The OP said he was reading a legal brief so I assume he’s in the field and probably knows something about law. I get that he’s afraid of cops, but he needs to have more of an intelligent way of dealing with it than expecting strangers to come to the rescue. Guess I may be missing the point of this article, but society isn’t going to change. Acting like a perpetual victim isn’t going to help. Some cops are always going to be racist. People aren’t going to stick their necks out for a stranger. It sucks but that’s life. He needs to learn how to make things better for himself and not expect society to change for him. If racist cops are afraid of black guys that dress and act like thugs, then maybe don’t dress and act like a thug to increase the odds of not getting beat.

    7. I don’t think it was the name calling. I’m assuming it was the screaming about being touched that worried him but the name calling was insuring people knew she was referring to him.

  5. My friend has a mix baby and her parents are kinda racist so she is having to deal with discrimination with her own family and in the city we are in the schools are not nice or child/adolescent friendly at all. He is only 4 right now but I’m gonna have the little hellions back. He is a sweet boy and is doing great with other kids, he loves his mom and I dread what he will have to face once he is old enough to start school. So not only will he probably have to deal with what this man had to as an adult but also as a kid……And boy did this guy have the patience of a saint. I would’ve made change out of her ass.

  6. People who don’t speak up are passive racists. They allow racism to continue and don’t intervene. You’re still a racist. You’re scared? How do you think the person being attacked feel???? Get off your ass and help!
    To the writer, I’ve expressed this many times when being attacked for being Muslim. I’ve told people who apologize to me after they mean nothing because they should have told my attacker to shut up.

  7. I have found women being harassed and feeling vulnerable on the metro. An effective approach is to go sit with the victim or stand between victim and oppressor , and engage the victim in conversation , direct eye contact . Just talk about anything , taking the oppressor out of the picture . Usually people stop after a while after they are ignored and also gives the victim some support and comfort.

  8. Here’s another perspective. If I had been on the train, I also would have ignored her at the start. People like that WANT to make a scene. They want confirmation that they are causing harm and they want a reaction that lets them shift into the victim role. Ignoring them is a way of taking away their power. Of course, since she didn’t give up and became physical someone had to step in. But that is another reason why people don’t immediately get involved. I hate giving those people the attention they so desperately want.

  9. Obviously the woman has mental health issues and probably grew up in a racist environment. But expecting more people to come forward is unrealistic. It’s not because they don’t care, it’s because that’s how our society works. Talk to someone who is trained as a first responder, like EMS and they will tell you one of the first things they are taught is to take command in a situation. Often when they arrive there are people standing around watching but not participating. It’s not that they don’t want to help, but that they don’t know how to assist. If you point to someone and tell them to call 911 they will. If you tell someone to assist you by keeping a person still who has been injured, they will. If you instruct a person to get something to prop up someone’s head, they will. They are willing to assist, but assume someone else will do so unless they are specifically asked to give a hand.
    While riding the subway in New York my wife asked loudly about which stop to exit. With about two dozen people there was total silence. Not even eye contact. When we came to the next stop a man passing by to exit wispered the answer. Apparently being friendly or helpful on the NY subway is not acceptable.

  10. But someone DID say something, they did offer her their seat to get her away from you, they did offer to switch places with you. Like the others have said not everyone is brave enough, some have been on your end of the situation…. Be grateful some did what they could.

  11. He could have helped himself. There’s a button for the operator. He could have reported the issue of the woman accusing and harassing him. Instead, he chose to remain passive and afraid of doing anything. This signals others he doesn’t really want the situation to escalate with a confrontation. Besides, good samaritans do get killed for helping or has everyone forgotten the men knifed to death on the max for helping black women? That brings me to my next point. The bystander effect can happen to anyone anywhere. Bystanders will often wait to make sure there is an actual threat before doing anything. Also, the more people, the more everyone waits to see who will take responsibility because it becomes assumed someone else will. That’s where you need to be direct, clear, and order specific people about if you need help in a crowd. Tell people to call for help, block, restrain, etc. Otherwise the bystander effects will win out more often than not and no help will be given.

  12. We need to speak up and call the racists out. I am white. When I was in college, I heard some white boys at a party derisively calling each other the n word. I looked right at them and said, what did you just say? One got up in my face and said, you heard me, bitch. He was very aggressive, but I didn’t back down. I told him not to use that ugly word. My friend had to intervene and drag me out of the party because I was in a yelling match with the guy and it was his house. I’d do it all over again just to call those racists out and let them know it’s not right and there are people who don’t take kindly to that.

  13. I remember reading this article and the comments earlier this year, and here it is, the last day of 2018, a day when we seem to want to make commitments for the new year and amends for the old.

    I’m trying to hold this as my commitment for this year: to see, to hear, and to respond and speak up. I know that as a white guy I get wide latitude in just about everything, so there’s great freedom to do these actions where others cannot.

    I have no idea how to measure “success.” (And I don’t think I should report success; that seems like I’m missing the point entirely.) But I’m going to try to be more present and in the moment.

    I pray you and your family will have a healthy and prosperous new year, and that you will grow in your hope and your obedience.

    1. Thank you for your comment, commitment, and prayers. Regardless of how it’s measured, I’m hopeful that 2019 will bring plenty of success in terms of taking an active stand for racial justice.

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