Opinion: How To (Or Not To) Stand Up To Racism In The Subway – A Bystander Intervention Story

Opinion: How To (Or Not To) Stand Up To Racism In The Subway – A Bystander Intervention Story
(Photo via hetalbot/instagram)
(Photo via hetalbot/instagram)

Written by Priscila Néri

I wanted to share something that happened to me last Thursday night as I was getting off the Q train at Prospect Park with my 3-year-old son around 6pm.

Right when we stepped onto the platform, we came face-to-face with a young white couple pushing a massive double stroller with two small kids inside. They seemed to be from out of town. The man was angrily banging on the elevator door of the subway platform because it was stuck. His wife seemed like she was trying to calm him down and then he started shouting: “It was those f@$#& stupid n!$#ers that broke it”.

I stopped, in shock, and stood there to see if he was actually saying what I thought he was. Then he left no doubt by screaming it many more times. No one else was close by. I couldn’t believe I was actually witnessing this. On my block, in Brooklyn, in my treasured bubble.

Then an African American woman stopped and stood by me and, also in shock. “Did he just say…” she asked. “Yes,” I said.

We just kind of stood there, disgusted, shocked, and also afraid to be honest. She alerted another African American woman that was walking by not to go close to the man. By this time he had ended his tirade and was carrying the stroller up the stairs with his wife. We all followed from a distance. I wanted to say something to him but didn’t know what. I was so enraged but also shaking, scared, and worried how he might react towards me or my son (I’m also 9 months pregnant).

“Sir, we don’t accept that kind of bigotry and language here in Brooklyn, if this is who you are you should go back to where you came from,” I blurted out from a distance, at the top of the stairs. That pathetic sentence was all I could muster. He started mumbling towards me, his wife started to hold him back and I became more afraid of this monster. I held my son’s hand tightly and we walked away. One of the African American women walked away with me.

I kept saying I couldn’t believe what just happened, that in our neighborhood at least I thought we were safe from this. We’re never safe, she said.

My parents immigrated from Brazil to the U.S. when I was 2 years old, and having lived most of my life in NYC, I later realized that I had never before witnessed a white person using that word with all the intended hate and horror it entails. How privileged of me.

My mom and sister have dark skin, have also lived in NYC this whole time and have never experienced something like this firsthand either. Like all women, we’ve dealt with sexual harassment and gender discrimination throughout our lives, but never this.

The funny thing is that the day before this happened, I had watched and read a bunch of online resources on bystander intervention and what to do if you witness a hate crime. I looked for these after the news about the New Yorker wearing a hijab that was assaulted by Trump supporters in Times Square after the election. I also work for a human rights organization that collaborates with activists around the world and helps them use video to expose abuse and violence.

Even still, I was unable to react in a way I could feel proud of — in retrospect, being caught so off guard (of this happening in Brooklyn) just paralyzed me. I think if I had been somewhere in the middle of the U.S., somewhere in Trump country where I expect this kind of sentiment exists, I would’ve been more prepared to react instead of freeze.

As if we needed any more evidence, shit is real. I’m sharing this now in the hopes it will help prepare more of us in this community to respond to this should it happen again. I am reminded that “safety” is an illusion or for many people of color and LGBTQ/gender non-conforming people. But I’ve also heard time and time again that solidarity is so important, and that what makes people feel supported in situations when they feel targeted or unsafe is knowing that there are bystanders willing to witness and intervene (when possible) where people are being threatened or assaulted.

I hope to do better next time — have the NYC hate crime hotline on speed dial, start filming if that could help collect evidence, and learn more about the resources on how to intervene safely and effectively. I Would also welcome anyone’s thoughts or feedback.

Here’s one resource on guidelines for being a bystander that I found useful and you may, too.

This op-ed was originally posted in the closed Facebook group, Prospect-Lefferts Gardens & Brooklyn Neighbors. It was posted here with permission from the author.