This is a guest post for swpd by DivineLioness, who writes, “I work with financially historically marginalized youth at a Seattle nonprofit, and had an extremely painful experience last Sunday upon visiting my hometown of Bellingham, WA. Below is the letter I wrote to help me move forward, and process what had happened to me. I apologize for its length and only want some understanding and clarity from it being posted here.
“What makes someone watch as another is hurt and do nothing? What, besides concern for one’s physical safety, makes a person afraid to speak out? Under what circumstances do we all allow malicious and unkind, even cruel things to be said out loud about another, and why?”
Bellingham, you have broken my heart. As an alumni of both Fairhaven Middle School and Sehome High School (never forgot you Ms. Carey and Mr. Kerr!), you have literally raised me to be the woman I have become. I did my (seemingly mandatory) teen stint at Macy's in Bellis Fair, and spent my idyllic summers at Whatcom Falls. I have spoken at your MLK celebrations at Whatcom Community College, received commendations from you for my non-profit work. I have competed to be Miss Whatcom County, representing you. When I went to build houses in New Orleans with Americorps, and got picked out of thousands to be interviewed by Anderson Cooper, I was proud to have him announce that I hailed from beautiful Bellingham, the sleepily progressive college town with the great gourmet ice cream. Now, as your daughter, Bellingham, it pains me: I don't know if I'll ever go back to loving you in the same way again.
When I came up this past weekend, I was looking forward to spending time with my good friend, a professors’ daughter I have known since the seventh grade. She’s a senior now at Western, and since I moved to Seattle, we haven't had a lot of time together. We laughed, reminisced, and drove past my old house. I was so happy to walk past some of the old haunts with her, catching up with her parents at their house in Fairhaven that I haven’t visited since high school.
As she dropped me off at the Greyhound station, I was filled with the gratitude that only a long term friendship provides. I chatted with a few of those who waited with me, including a grandmother from Lynden who was picking up a friend from Vancouver. I also talked a bit to a couple headed to Seattle as well, the wife wearing a gorgeous pink sari, and the husband with amicable smiles and tightly wound turban. It was a quiet Sunday afternoon, I had arrived early, but the bus, as it often is, was late. The ticket teller shrugged as we asked after it from time to time, the braids in his beard moving with his frown. Sometimes the border delayed the bus. He couldn’t be sure of the time that it would arrive.
As we waited and made polite chit chat, a diminutive, shabby man came in from outside. I judged him to be homeless, and in his late forties, but to this day I am not sure. I do know, however, that he seemed to get a kick out of making the other Greyhound passengers uncomfortable. He whistled and sang loudly, imitated the ringtones of other’s cell phones, and insistently asked increasingly impertinent questions to the people situated around him.
“Where are you from?” He asked repeatedly to the woman in her sari, who ignored him. “You aren’t American.” When he elicited no response, he turned to her husband. “Where are you going, anyway?” The husband decided to humor him. “Seattle.” He then asked each one of us where we were going, and we all (in my case, reluctantly) answered. He then went back to the married woman in pink. “You’re an Arab, aren’t you?” When she wouldn’t answer him he went on and on, eventually moving past where the couple was from and onto describing his ideal woman, who he stated “Would be bigger, so I can slap her around a bit.”
I had been turned around in my seat, but couldn’t ignore the man any longer.
“Excuse me sir, your comments are making me feel uncomfortable. Are you able to stop your conversation, move it, or do I have to leave?” I used my politest, but firmest tone.
“You’re hair is HUGE.” I was wearing my hair out naturally that day, in a medium-sized afro.
“Thank you.” I was undeterred. “Sir, your comments are making me feel uncomfortable. Are you able to stop your conversation, move it, or do I have to leave?”
“Well, I guess you need to leave, ‘cause I’m not stopping anything. Sorry,” the man smirked.
I shrugged, packed up my bag, and went outside to wait out the bus to Seattle, which, by now, was over thirty minutes late.
After awhile, the older grandmother from Lynden ambled out to wait with me.
“I think that man is crazy,” she said by way of opening. I explained that I didn’t believe so; the man could and did engage in conversation, responded to questions posed to him, and seemed to be aware of the effect of his words on other people. “Maybe a bit drunk,” I giggled with her.
We went on, talking about our past, and why we were waiting at Greyhound that day. The woman went on to tell me about working as a nurse in a mental hospital in the 60’s, and mentioned that her Christianity was the bedrock of her compassion. We had something in common; now I work with youth who sometimes suffer from a variety of behavioral "problems."
Eventually the diminutive and talkative man reappeared, coming outside for what I assumed was some sort of attention. We ignored him and chattered on. Eventually, the sky darkened with rain and we walked past the man to go inside and ask about the bus, which still hadn’t arrived.
The man followed us in, along with a group of around six other people. He resumed his humming and imitating of cell phone rings, and I continued to ignore him. At one point I asked him out loud to please be quiet.
Eventually, in front of the now packed waiting room, as I waited at the ticket counter, he began calling out to individuals.
“I guess Seattle should have a welcome sign: All niggers and Arabs allowed!” He smilingly announced to the room.
No response. I turned my back on him and faced the ticket counter.
“Hey, do you want to hear a nigger joke? It’s really funny!” He chuckled to himself as he took a seat in the corner, facing us all.
At this, I murmured to the ticket teller. “I have been called nigger once today, and if I am called it again, I want that man removed.” The ticket seller chewed his lip and pulled on his beard, braided in three. I couldn’t help but have the fleeting thought and smiled to myself. “That is so Bellingham…”
By this time the small man in the corner was warmed up.
“What is the difference between a nigger and a parrot?” He smiled warmly at the sitting group. “Do you want to know?”
He proceeded to tell multiple jokes with nigger punch lines, rail on the state of niggers in the oval office, all the while stopping to make sure that everyone could hear him. He repeatedly called out individuals in the group, always in a friendly and engaging manner. “Those crazy niggers, right?” “You know, don’t you….” “Three Jews and a nigger went into a market…” He laughed and nodded at the people around him as I turned to the Greyhound ticket seller once more.
“I have been called nigger again. I am a paying customer, and would like to think that I deserve to be have a humane experience here.”
As the ticket seller steeled himself and looked around for protocols on calling the police, I looked around at the group of people who had previously been waiting with me, chatting with me, exchanging pleasantries. I realized that not one of them was going to say, “No, I don’t know about ‘crazy niggers’.” Or “No, I don’t want to hear your joke.” I realized that I was completely alone, that no one was going to stand up for me, a girl less than half this man’s age, who had paid for a ticket and was now tearing up at the ticket seller’s desk.
I began to openly cry as I realized that my belief was wrong that, in the absence of fear for one’s own physical safety, all people would not tolerate injustice. I, as a brown girl, was not worth even one word of dissent from people that had nothing to lose. By saying nothing, these people were implying consent. I had no allies, and apparently no right to be in a public space free of racial epithets.
The ticket seller, seeing my tears, came out of his booth.
“I’m kicking you out.” His voice rang loud in the pregnant guilty silence. “I want to you to apologize to this lady and then leave.”
“Why?” The man in the corner looked bewildered and amused.
“Because you’re using the N word, and making her uncomfortable, and now she’s crying.” Not, ‘you’re using the N-word and that is NOT appropriate,’ or ‘You’re using the N-word and making US uncomfortable.” The implication (which I’m sure was unconscious) was, “This black person doesn’t like you talking about niggers, so we’re kicking you out.”
I felt even more alone in that moment, as, still, NOT ONE PERSON spoke up and said “I feel uncomfortable.” It also made me wonder that, had I not said anything at all, would anyone request the man’s removal from the bus station?
The man shook his head in seeming disbelief, then walked closer to me, as he had no idea of my tears, because my back was turned away.
“I didn’t mean to make you cry. Sorry.” His voice was loud and seemed saccharine. I wiped the wetness away and managed a small, defiant, “I don’t want your apology.”
I didn’t. Why would I want a bigot to pretend to feel sorry for something he clearly was not sorry for? What would be the point? I wasn’t crying about anything the man had said, I was crying that I was fast losing the belief in the general decency of human beings. That, in the place I had long considered home (which prided itself on its progressive politics) old and young, parents, couples, and single people, would sit in the face of blatant racism with nothing to lose, and do nothing.
At my low, sad statement, the man lost his good-natured smile.
“Well, then I guess a nigger is always a fucking nigger then!” He laughed, spun on his heel and left.
I looked over and caught the guilty eye of a man seated to my left, who had been at a vantage point to see my tears. As he opened his mouth to speak to me, I assumed he was going to utter an apology.
“Don’t be upset, miss….Uh, we, I mean, I was….uh, bothered….as, don’t cry…”
Even now, I tremble as I recall. Don’t be upset that we allowed someone to single you out and ridicule you based on your race, miss. Don’t be upset that none of us said a single thing to stop it. Don’t be upset that you now can’t feel safe in your hometown. Don’t cry, because we feel guilty when you cry. Don’t cry that someone used that word systematically to elicit a reaction from you, a word with deep ties to murder, fear, slavery, hopelessness. Don’t cry because you just wanted to wait for your bus, dared voice that you were uncomfortable with offensive remarks, and someone wanted to punish you the worst way they knew how without hitting you.
No one, at any time during or after apologized to me. No one said “Wow, that must have really hurt your feelings,” or “Are you ok, miss?” No one offered me a hug, or commented “Whoa, that guy is crazy/out of line.” No one said anything at all, except the poor Greyhound ticket man, who apologized profusely for not really knowing what to do. Even at that I was a tad bewildered. Isn’t it normal to kick out people harassing patrons at any establishment? Perhaps that man had never experienced someone harassing the customers before. I am more able to forgive him for at least acknowledging that something was NOT okay was happening to me. Even so, his phrasing in the moment was telling. Only I was bothered by racism. Only me.
Even now, I think to myself. What if that man had decided to hit me? Would anyone have said or done something then? What if he had singled out someone else and kept saying “Cunt,” or “faggot”? Because I know in that situation I would (and have) said something. But would anyone else? And doesn’t that mean that I then would be sticking up for people that couldn’t have seemingly cared less about me? What happened to the woman with all of her Christian compassion? What about me made me not worthy of that compassion, of even a hug, after what was obviously a traumatic event?
I rode on the bus for over two hours with three of the people who witnessed the entire episode at the bus station. At no time did anyone mention anything to me.
I have a hard time having faith in the basic goodness of the human race now. I work with youth at a nonprofit and shudder to think that the best I can hope for them is sending them out into a world that does not openly and violently harm them physically.
The only thing I know for sure is that I will never look at the world the same way again. I have never experienced this deep, cavernous heartache before in my life. I had no idea of the concept of a ‘broken heart’ until this experience happened to me.
I have now lost the naive belief that empathy triumphs over fear, that progress will silence intolerance, that I am not alone, that although my race might be different than someone else’s, people will assume me just as deserving to feel secure in the knowledge that I do not deserve to be harassed. I now understand that people who say they believe in justice and equality often only mean it when it is convenient to them, and those that stand up, speak out for justice, for equality are the outlier, not the average. I now know that when push comes to shove, Bellingham is not a safe place for me, that although I am its daughter, it has no love for my face. I suppose I should thank the man with his plethora of race jokes. He was the catalyst for stripping me of my false idealism. I just don’t know if I can forgive him, or you, Bellingham, for it.