Public Harassment: What are you doing in…

“What are you doing in this country?! You should go back to where you came from!”

A white older woman walked into the library where I work, took one look at a South Asian man seated close to the Reference Desk and laid into him using a loud, belligerent voice in an unrelenting verbal attack. For the record, I am a white middle-aged woman, who is married to a man from India. Moments before the attack, I had answered a question from this man and found him perfectly amiable and courteous. The woman was a regular library patron, who presented a completely different physical appearance than I was used to seeing. She was not dressed or groomed with the care I had seen on previous occasions and her facial expression was grim and fixed. I’m not a psychologist.

That said, I had a feeling that she may have mental health issues that had been managed in the past but on that day had broken through. It was scary to hear the vitriol pouring out of her mouth, completely unjustified, onto this man who didn’t deserve it. Somehow he fell into her crosshairs and suffered a barrage of cruelty. It was awful. As the staff member closest to the attack, I knew I had to step up and step in immediately. I made the mistake of trying to insert myself into the barrage by asking the woman neutral questions, in an attempt to distract her. From the Hollaback training, I’ve since learned I should have directly engaged the man rather than confront her.

Eventually, my boss appeared to address the woman, who she has known for years, and broke the evil spell. I felt terrible for the man — it was a hideous violation of him and truly distressing to see. At the first opportunity, I apologized to the man and told him that the woman was completely out of line and that she had no business abusing him in that way. The man then apologized to me and my boss — I don’t know why. I was sad that he thought he was at fault. He did nothing to bring on the woman’s tirade, absolutely nothing. I told him that and repeated it again, still, he was apologetic. I felt so badly. I’d never seen anything like that, which obviously points to my naivete and life in a mostly white bubble of privilege. When I learned about Hollaback, I wanted to learn what I could have done better and how to handle, and hopefully help in, other outrageous situations.

I witnessed another cruel situation once in a store. The only other customer at the time was a woman of small stature. At one point, two girls who looked to be 11 or 12 years old, entered the store. They began pointing at the other woman, snickering, and saying cruel things about her appearance. The shopkeeper ignored the situation, and I was so shocked by their rudeness and cruelty that I froze. I will always regret not stepping forward to intervene and take the side of the woman in that ugly situation.

I want to continue learning and become a more compassionate, sensitive and effective person. Thank you, everyone at Hollaback for helping me move towards being a better, kinder human being.

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