Tuesday, September 19, 2017


The bagel shop was a bit busier than usual, so I had to get in line behind a half-dozen people, which put me near a farmhouse-style table where three people were seated. As I dug my phone out of my pocket to kill time while waiting, I heard the voices from the table and glanced over at them.

The speaker was a white man, probably around 70. His companions were two white women of a similar age or just a bit younger. He was doing almost all of the talking, and his voice, while not the loudest I’ve heard in a restaurant, was prominent enough to carry well beyond the table. I could hear him pretty clearly, and when the sound in the rest of the place ebbed, anyone within 10 or 12 feet would be able to hear him, too.

I don’t remember what he said exactly because my mind was switching into fight-or-flight mode, with adrenaline starting to hit my bloodstream and the shaking that comes with that. But it was racist as hell. He wasn’t using the N word, or saying people deserved to die, or anything along those lines. But he made repeated statements about how he didn’t understand black culture, how it was deficient, how black people can’t help themselves, how they trash houses and neighborhoods… things like that.

Now mind you, there was an African American employee of the bagel shop standing five feet in front of me, working dutifully. He probably couldn’t hear this jerk, but I could, the person in line behind me could, the person ahead of me probably could, and the four or five people at adjacent tables could.

Then for a moment the conversational background noise of the restaurant faded and I clearly heard the guy saying something positive about Bill Cosby’s lecturing of his fellow black people and knew the young employee might be able to hear him also.

I got out of the line and stood at the end of the farmhouse table, shaking and quaking for a half-second. The three of them looked at me as I started to speak. “Excuse me, sir,” I said in what I hope was a fairly even tone. “I know you have the right to sit here and express your opinions, but could you please keep your voice down so the rest of us don’t have to listen to you?”

I think that’s what I said. I know I’ve remembered the beginning and the ending correctly… I can’t quite recall how I put the part about him being able to express his opinions. I didn’t say he was a racist or characterize his words in any way, except by saying that I didn’t want to listen to them.

They all looked at me in astonishment.

I went back to the line, ordered my food, paid for it, and sat down. By the time I got to a table on the other side of the room, they had left.

I may have ruined his day. I guess I kind of hope I did. I wonder if he has any idea why a white lady not that much younger than him would say she didn’t want to hear what he had to say. I wonder if the other two women agreed with him or were just too polite to tell him to shut up.

It’s a weird thing. He wasn’t proclaiming to the other people in the room on purpose, or directly addressing a person of color with his racism. The situation wasn’t like the one with “your racist uncle at Thanksgiving,” exactly, where you're sharing a common social space and there are impressionable young nieces and nephews listening, as NPR's Gene Demby has put it.

So when is it okay to interrupt racist speech?

I think because he was speaking loudly enough to impinge on the space of a dozen other people, it was appropriate. If he hadn’t been speaking loudly I wouldn’t have heard him and wouldn’t have said anything, right? If he wanted to stand on a street corner and spout off, he would have the right to do that, and anyone else would have the right to heckle him back, or even shout louder than him. But in a private space like a restaurant, or maybe on a bus, what would you do?

I was shaking for another 15 minutes as I calmed down. Ruined my lunch, mostly. But I'm glad I did it; it would have been ruined worse if I hadn't.


Michael Leddy said...

“So when is it okay to interrupt racist speech?”

I’d say at any time, as long as someone has the courage, as you did.

Barbara said...

You have always been a hero of mine. This just underscores why. I couldn't have done it without throwing up from nerves, and I would have hated myself later for staying silent. Thank you for reminding us that silence is complicity.