I read a post in a private group on Facebook yesterday that really affected me. And it occurred to me that it’s a perfect blueprint for how to act in situations where the universe chooses you to be the lone emissary of sanity in a world that all too often goes off the deep end.
Here’s the post, in its entirety, typos intact:
On Wednesday, I was standing in line at the grocery store. It’s the day before thanksgiving, so it is quite literally a 45 minute wait. I’m standing by those dreaded magazines with all the horrible headlines, which I always try to ignore.
Everyone is keeping to themselves mostly, except for… Behind me, stands the personification of privilege — a white male (I’m assuming cisgender and straight.) He (a total stranger, mind you) has the audacity to elbow, point to Hilary and Michelle Obama on the cover of one magazine, and quite loudly state: “I can’t believe that loser c#nt thinks she can steal the win from Donald. Her and that n!gg#r are such whiny bitches.” Then he laughs heartily.
When I say that he spoke loud, I mean bellowing. I look around — and everyone not only in my aisle but the aisle on both sides of me has heard. They grimace…and then they look down. Men, women, white, black… They look down.
I suddenly flash to a remembrance of me as a 6-year-old child. A family member once owned a home that was part of the Underground Railroad. We’d sit behind this concrete slab under their deck and talk about what happened here. Even as a small child — a young, white man myself — I said I would die before I let that kind of open hate live in my world. I made the same resolution when I learned about the holocaust in junior high. And I felt that exact same fire now — in the grocery store.
I found myself, like everyone else, looking down…but I couldn’t continue to do that. After about 30 seconds, something in me snapped. I put down my basket, turned around and looked that man in the eyes. I was shocked by how badly I was shaking, but words began spilling out of my mouth, loudly and fiercely.
I asked everyone: “I’m sorry, everyone, but I must ask for some support in addressing this hateful and ignorant man. Look up, please. Someone look up because I can’t do this alone.”
People began to look up. I began to cry and I don’t know why but I couldn’t stop. I continued staring the man down… “Those comments were inappropriate and i will not allow them in my world.”
His reply? “Dude, calm down. I wasn’t calling you a c#nt or a n!gg#r.”
By now, everyone was looking up. I continued, shaking uncontrollably. “You will stand in this line and you will keep your mouth shut. You won’t speak. You will not address any of us. You will pay for your items and you will leave.”
He kept trying to respond, and I kept cutting him off by calmly repeating “You’re done. Shut your mouth.” By now, people were clapping. Eventually, he got quiet and looked down. We were all looking up and now He was the one looking down.
Immediately, everyone began talking. Not about him, but the holidays. Joyous, laughing. And it wasn’t out of embarrassment or to pretend what happened didn’t just happen…. But it was because we were instantly bonded in this weird but beautiful way.
I openly talked about the Friendsgiving my partner and I were prepping at home for our LGBT family, as well as the pre-Thanksgiving we had earlier in the week for transgender youth who weren’t invited home… Us strangers even hugged upon checkout.
Together, we silenced ignorant hate. We made the choice to look up. And we shared a moment. I was overwhelmed with emotion and fear before I decided to speak, but I asked for help…and help came forth, strongly and beautifully.
Pretty powerful, right?
The fact is that we all encounter situations like this, where we’re reluctant observers of behavior that is abhorrent, racist, sexist, hateful, etc. Most of the time, we do as the supermarket patrons in the post do–we look at our feet and pretend as though we don’t notice what is going on.
But the fact is–we do know what is going on.
While I certainly don’t recommend confronting someone in a situation that might endanger your safety, I am asking you to step outside of your comfort zone.
Would I have confronted the offensive man in the post? Yes, and with a torrent of four-letter words. (But I’m a loose cannon, and I would not encourage anyone to follow my example.) Would YOU have confronted him?
You might think to yourself “Who cares what I say? This fool isn’t going to listen to me. I’m not going to change him.” You might be right. In fact, you are probably right. But that’s really not the point. The point is that if we all start speaking up–and don’t stop speaking up–the world will become a hostile place for those who embrace hatred. Just imagine if EVERYONE in that story started speaking up at the same time. Imagine!
Take a moment, and ask yourself when the last time that someone:
- Told you a racist joke?
- Made a racial slur in your presence?
- Made a derogatory comment about or humiliated [transgender individuals/women/a person of color/any other vulnerable group] in front of you?
- Made a sexually inappropriate comment to a someone in your presence?
- Treated someone differently because they were a [transgender individuals/women/a person of color/any other vulnerable group] in your presence?
- Yelled at, humiliated, or hit a child in front of you?
Don’t tell me that none of these things have ever happened. You live in the same world I do, and I could name dozens of situations like these.
What did you do? Did you say anything? Did you write them off, or did you write their behavior off as harmless but misguided?
Maybe one of these situations happened around you…and it was someone who you’re close to who was the perpetrator–a best friend, a cousin, even your spouse. What did you do? Did you tolerate it? Make an excuse for them? Playfully slap their hand?
It’s not easy to stand up against hate. People will say you that you’re too serious and that you should lighten up. People will say (like in the post), “Hey, that wasn’t directed at you, so what’s your problem?” They might even insult you or purposely hurt your feelings.
But there comes a day in every person’s life where they have to decide just who they are, who they want to be, and whether they want their time on this earth to matter.
Hate exists because others tolerate it. Hate exists because groups of haters cling together, legitimizing each other’s hatred.
If one of us stands up and says “no, that’s not how we do it,” it changes the balance. It empowers someone else to look up from their shoes and stand beside you. Then, two of you will be standing together. Then three. Then four.
Resistance exists because groups of resistors cling together, legitimizing each other’s resistance.
You don’t have to be overly confrontational. You don’t have to be threatening. You can quietly and politely say, “That comment is in extremely poor taste. I don’t want you to speak that way around me.” You could say nothing at all–just get up and walk away. If it happens in the workplace, tell HR. If you see it in a store, tell the manager. But do something.
There are many versions of a poem written by Pastor Martin Niemöller (1892–1984) about the cowardice of German intellectuals following the Nazis’ rise to power and subsequent purging of their chosen targets, group after group. The version below appears in the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum:
“First they came for the Socialists, and I did not speak out—
Because I was not a Socialist.
Then they came for the Trade Unionists, and I did not speak out—
Because I was not a Trade Unionist.
Then they came for the Jews, and I did not speak out—
Because I was not a Jew.
Then they came for me—and there was no one left to speak for me.”
Speak up. Please. Do it for me, for you, for all of us. It matters.