Monday, May 2, 2016

Are we in a post-racial world? In a word, NO! Make that, Hell No!



So my colleague and I were catching up after not seeing each other for a while.  She’s just accepted a new position as an administrator at the community college up the street from where I work.  I wanted to welcome her to the neighborhood and welcome her to her new job.  We arranged to meet at a Starbucks in between our two institutions.  We talked for maybe 30 or 40 minutes.  It’s the kind of innocuous catch-up talk that two college administrators do when we’re trying to figure out what we’ve been up to since we last talked.


My awareness of the incident, as I later explained it to the officer who took my statement, started with me realizing that my right hand was wet.  We were in a Starbucks and there was lots of liquid around.  My cortical brain told me that most likely someone spilled something.  But then, I heard someone behind me say something that sounded like, “fucking nigger bitch.”  My brain needed a new explanation.  I turned and realized that a young White man in his early 20s behind me, neatly dressed with short-cropped hair with a dark-colored backpack, was directing this statement to my colleague. As I turned further to face him, he said, “That’s right fucking nigger bitch” again.  He walked to the door and walked out.  The incident didn’t really register with me, even as he walked out.  What had happened?  I turned to my colleague and asked if she knew the young man.  She had never seen him.  He went outside and stood at the window yelling more comments that we could not hear and finally walked away down the street.  It was as he stood at the window that my brain started to make sense of things, as I realized that the liquid I initially felt on my hand was his spit.  He had spit at my colleague, as it turned out, twice.  This young man looked like a thousand other young college students I’ve seen over the years.  Clean cut, well dressed.  He was also visibly angry.  He did not present as mentally disturbed or under the influence of any substances.  He directed his anger at my colleague, having never met either of us.  He saw two African Americans sitting in a Starbucks and decided that it was okay to assault us. 


As my colleague noted as we waited to file a police report, we both know that we can’t dress ourselves out of the perception of who were are in the dominant society.  She and I, dressed in the kind of professional attire anyone would expect a college administrator to be wearing in the middle of a work day, are still targets for hate.  The young man didn’t see educated college administrators sitting at the table.  He saw two Black people and, in his twisted sense of the rules of life, our socio-economic status, educational accomplishments, or our age required no respect or deference.  In fact, he seemed only to see a woman of color whom he could brazenly assault in an open space with others watching.  It reminded me of my childhood growing up in the 1950’s and 1960s in an all-White community where my family endured these kinds of threats daily.  That was then, right?  We all seem to perceive that we’ve changed now.  After all, as that thinking goes, we’re in a post-racial world where what really matters is status and access to resources and power. 


The access and status that both my colleague and I have obtained didn’t stop this incident.  While the society has created hate crime laws and has professed an expectation that this kind of behavior shouldn’t be tolerated, clearly for this young man those weren’t enough discouragements to overcome whatever misogynistic and racial hatred and ignorance fuel him.  And, on reflection a few hours after the incident, more than that young man’s actions were disturbing to me.  This was a very public act in a very small space.  Everyone at that café heard the incident and many saw it.  However, only one patron came up after the incident.  That woman apologized to us, saying that this should never happen to anyone, and she offered to be a witness.  Also, the manager came to assist us to clean ourselves and to help file the police report.  Everyone else at the café sat silently or went on with their business.  In a truly post-racial world, that would not be how things work.  In a post-racial world, that kind of violation would mobilize every person in that space to actively resist an assault on two people – an assault that only happened because of our race, and because of the gender of my colleague.  In a post-racial world, there’s no silence.  Even if you can’t directly act, you take a stand to support those who are assaulted, like the woman who volunteered to be a witness, or the manager who took action.  That personal action is the only way that we stop gender-based and racially motivated hate crimes.  And it’s the only way to ensure that people like this young man get the message that we as a society won’t accept any assault on any person.  My guess is that the next time, this young man will be more violent and his next incident will be more brash.  Unstopped, antisocial behavior like this escalates.  And he lives in a world right now where he felt safe taking these actions.  But when incidents like this stop, or people who witness these incidents involve themselves as actors against such acts, then maybe we’ll be moving toward a post-racial world.




Note Added 6/5/16:
Until this date, I encouraged people to post replies and I would moderate and allow those replies to appear here.  When Seattle NPR station KUOW re-posted this three days ago, I'm told they received 33,000 hits in the first day, and that drove a significant number of readers to this site.  And many of those readers sent replies -- more responses than I can keep up with.  So I've kept the replies that were online before the deluge of messages, and I have turned off the reply feature to this posting.  I apologize to people who have sent messages; however, it's impossible for me to moderate and post all of them.  I encourage those of you who've sent replies that weren't posted to engage in this discussion in other forums.  BH


Note Added 6/11/16
In the past week, KUOW interviewed my colleague, Yoshiko Harden, and me about this incident.  KUOW's Web editor also posted a follow up article where others tell their stories.  The interview and the posting of others' stories are at this link:
http://kuow.org/post/9-heartbreaking-responses-man-shouts-racial-slurs-seattle-starbucks.  BH

20 comments:

  1. Mr. Hughes: This saddens and sickens me beyond words. I realize by telling you this will not rectify the crime against you, your colleague and the rest of humanity, but please know had I been in that Starbuck's I would not, actually could not have sat quiet. In fact, I might have ended up in jail myself, this kind of behavior makes me so angry. But that would be better than allowing that "person" think he has my support/agreement.

    Thank you for sharing your story. There are so many of us who don't see this kind of treatment and think it no longer exists. Please take care.

    Karen

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  2. Oh, Bob. Heard about this from Y on her FB page. Sickening -- even as I shouldn't be surprised. Sending solidarity.

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  3. I am reading your story with great sadness. I promise I will keep my ears, eyes, and heart open. I will do my best to speak out quickly and surely against such actions and will serve as a witness any time I am present to such a wrongful act.

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  4. Hi Bob,
    I know I shouldn't be surprised but I am. I'm also sickened, saddened, and consider this a wake-up call. In my gender and the arts class we talk about things in the news. I think this will become part of class discussion this week...

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  5. The current climate of hate and bigotry has worsened with all of the hoopla around Trump. Make no mistake, racism has never waned in the NW. Good people tell themselves there is no such thing because they have never been the brunt. I am sorry no one else stood up but my guess is that some didn't know what was going on because they are so focused on their electronics and not really aware of those around them and of course, some were too shocked or too scared to speak up. I am sorry for what happened to you and your friend. It's a wake up call. We must all work together to counter the hate.

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  6. What a sickening act. I'm ashamed to say it because it should be obvious but your words in this post are a reminder to me that speaking up against hate and injustice, even if not exactly sure what to say or how to confront is always better than pretending not to see out of fear. Although I haven't witnessed any direct acts like this, I see subtle hostility on social media at times and am guilty of ignoring all too often. I'm so sorry you experienced this and really feel convicted about speaking up in the future.

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  7. Thanks for sharing...ugly, uglier, ugliest, and yes, totally agree - there is no way we are in a postracial world!!

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  8. I am Japanese and I have had the incident similar to this. I feel everyone is driven by such a hatred attitude these days as I have seen how the presidential debates were driven by the ignorance, arrogance and hate. I don't understand why people want to divide themselves rather than unifying, getting to know other rqces/ethnicity. It's so hard to believe we actually live in 21st century. Are we going backwards instead of forward? People of color are already stretched so far out for Caucasian why would we have to do more? Isn't it time for privileged people to meet in the middle and start working on their own issues so that the racial conflict won't exist anymore?

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  9. I, too, felt an immeasurable bleakness as your story unfolded. I stand with Ms. Peck and pledge to bear witness regarding any such act of blatant hostility and aggression that may occur in my presence.

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  10. Wow! Haven't been around this before. That probably shows I'm white. Horrible. Haven't got a sense of how many people were there, but I'm used to seeing spur of the moment handheld photo taking around me for all sorts of situations. I am surprised no one, even surreptitiously, didn't click on this. Maybe there's some cowardice in that act of negligence too. Or maybe fear of him and his willingness to be violent. So where in this one person does this come from and what would he have done if more people had confronted him on the spot? Makes me want to be around for one of these occasions to see what I'd be doing.

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  11. Bob, this is appalling. I'm so sorry. Full out hate speech and assault in our liberal bubble. I totally agree that we need to be the room-full, block-full, city-full of people who say “NO”. NO, we are not going backwards on racism; we are not retreating on sexism, that we are together in being the society that is better than that, that is better for all of us. There's always work to be done. This reminds me it's time to work harder. - Shash

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  12. Bob, this is appalling. I’m so sorry. Full out hate speech and assault in our liberal bubble. I totally agree that we need to be the room-full, block-full, city-full of people who say “NO”. NO, we are not going backwards on racism; we are not retreating on sexism, that we are together in being the society that is better than that, that is better for all of us. There’s always work to be done. Reading this tells me it’s time to work harder.

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  13. Hi Bob. James shared this on his page. I can't help but shake in anger with tear filled eyes as I type this message. I hope you and I will live to see/witness a better world because we are not there yet. The fight continues.
    Forever your student,
    Cindy Tran

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  14. Did this idiot make a scene, or did he quietly attack and insult you? I hope that no one else heard and that is why no one said anything. Yet, for those that make the decision to not get involved, saying nothing is like saying it's ok. There are a lot of crazy people out there and getting involved can be dangerous, but you can at least ask if a person, who just went though being called a very hurtful name and spat on, is ok. Please know there are a lot of people (like me) who would like to give you a hug and tell you we are sorry that this happened to you and your friend. Racism, sexism, homophobia...it's out there rearing it's disgusting, despicable head. Dear Lord, please fix the stupid, hateful people!

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  15. We are outraged and, if this had happened in front of us, I can tell you WE would NOT sit idly by.EVERYONE in that Starbucks who observed this act and failed to step up is complicit. Unless we speak up, we are just as guilty.

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  16. I'm sorry and am outraged at what happened to you and your colleague at Starbucks last week. These bigots are at it last legs because they can no longer dominant in America life, so they lash out at women and people of Color. That explains the rise of Trump and his ilk.

    My prayers are with you and colleague.

    Sincerely,

    S. B.

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  17. Bob, Sara sent me the link to your blog yesterday, and when I read about what had happened to you and your friend I had such a tsunami of feelings. Even today, I struggle to say anything coherent about it. Mostly, I feel sad and furious that you were attacked; appalled that such things still happen and that no one came to your aid; and ashamed to share any trait --even a skin color -- with this attacker. Just reading about it was so distressing that I can't imaging having witnessed it or having been the victim of the attack. Such incidents degrade us all. I'm so sorry that this happened to you and your friend. It is important that you spoke about it because we need to know that our work towards equality is FAR from over. I echo Ms. Peck's pledge to not stand idly by.

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  18. Dr. Hughes, sending my support your way. It really sadens me to realize more and more discrimination against being any thing else different than Caucasian is a real thing in this country. I just shared this in LinkedIn. Do I have your permission to share it on Twitter and Facebook as well?

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  19. Bob, I'm still reeling inside with anger reading about what happened to you both and struggling for a coherent response. I am so sorry--while true, this doesn't seem enough. Your writing is a call to action; it reminds me be real with myself: am I doing all I can to be vigilant and vocal in creating a world where this doesn't happen.

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  20. Hi Bob,

    I read this a few weeks ago and I am still thinking about what happened to you and your colleague. It is upsetting to hear that you were assaulted and very few came to your aid. I couldn't imagine not providing a statement to the store manager and police in that situation. I've shared this incident with others and pledge to always say something or take action if this ever happens in my presence. My thoughts are with you and your colleague.

    Laura East

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