opinion

"Witnessing racism and not saying something makes you complicit in it."

This week a dear colleague wrote about her ugly encounter in a car park with a racist woman. She was shocked, saddened and disgusted to overhear a racist remark and responded with a glare before driving off.

I know exactly how she feels; I’ve encountered those kinds of people before. Except instead of being a bystander, I’ve been the recipient of verbal abuse. It happens to me more often than I’d like — I would say several times a month, depending on how often I go out in public.

I am often in the company of other people when it happens, whether it be standing in a line at the supermarket or in an elevator. And each time it happens, the abuser is met with resounding silence. Everyone looks down, shuffles their feet, laughs uncomfortably, not one word.

Do you know what silence in response to blatant bigotry feels like?

It feels really lonely.

It feels like no one gives a shit.

Watch Stan Grant discuss racism in Australia (Post continues after video…)

I’ll never forget one particular incident late last year. I was with my sister and daughter (who was two at the time), and we were all waiting to go into an elevator at my local Woolworths.

As the doors opened, everyone slowly shuffled in to make room for the prams and various trolleys. I sidled in close to this middle-aged lady to make room for another mother with a pram.

It was then she unleashed the vitriol that must’ve been percolating in her system for years.

“DO NOT TOUCH ME. SHE CAN WAIT FOR THE NEXT LIFT. THIS IS NOT BLOODY CHINA.”

She then went on to mutter some things about Chinese people and manners.

I couldn’t believe what I was hearing. Not because the concept of racism was new to me — it’s a practice as old as humanity itself — but partly because I didn’t think this woman would say something in the company of children.

I looked around. My sister was staring at the floor. She was 17. I glanced over to the teenager in his school uniform with his mother. He was staring at the ceiling chuckling. Another middle-aged man was shaking his head. Everyone was looking in another direction except this woman. The atmosphere in the elevator was suffocating, uncomfortable and very, very silent.

"The atmosphere in the elevator was suffocating, uncomfortable and very, very silent." (Image via iStock)
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The doors opened and the woman stormed off, muttering racist remarks in her wake. It was then the middle-aged man approached my sister.

"Don't worry" he said. "We can't let people like that get to us, we will never win otherwise."

Why couldn't he say that to my sister in the lift, in the company of this woman? Why was there no show of solidarity?

I confess, I also didn't saying anything. I didn't want to be that angry, defensive person in front of my daughter.

When I posted the incident on Facebook last year, tonnes of friends responded. One in particular stuck out:

"Something just happened to me on my train home that made me think of this post! My experience is usually 'inclusive racism'. Older white Australians often look to me (because I'm Caucasian) to support their racist remarks. It's super awkward and when I reply in a pro-multicultural tone it often appears to escalate the situation, rather than dampen it (which is what everyone would hope for).

"Today an older woman commented to me in a racist way in front of an Asian couple, apparently thinking they couldn't understand English or didn't care. I flatly ignored her, turned to the couple and said I'm sure she'll get off soon. So no, I don't experience racism aimed at me as the target but it can be pretty bad as a bystander too."

I have no doubt it's uncomfortable for other people to witness racism, even when it's not directed at them.

I know that feeling of shock and the crippling force of panic. By the time you snap around to say something, the moment is often gone.

"If you see something, say something. Don't look away." (iStock)

But here's the thing: saying nothing, in my mind, is even worse.

Mentally, we can write off these racist bigots as a dwindling minority. Dinosaurs who belong in a racist past that has no place in modern society.

What's our excuse?

We are educated. We know right from wrong. We want to protect our children from these sorts of attitudes, but when we can't, we want to teach them that this is not acceptable.

My colleague wondered what she should've done in such a situation. 'What to do?'

My advice would be: If you see something, say something.

Granted, her situation was different. She had a baby in the car. She was in a car park, not in close quarters with the abuser or the victim. She was discombobulated. I've been there.

We cannot become a nation of the silent majority. We need to start taking back control of the public discourse, and not dismissing the odd comment as one for the "naysayers."

In the words of Tara Moss, we need to speak out. Only then will we know that we've truly won.

Have you ever experienced, or witnessed, racism in a public situation? How did you respond?

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