Over winter break, I went out with a few friends and took a train home alone through downtown Dallas. It was the late afternoon — too early for the post-bar bunch and too late for the usual work crowd. Soon after I chose my seat, a slender Casanova wannabe with a can of cheap beer and a green pullover jacket hobbled into the seat behind me.
When a young woman entered our section a few stops later, the man took it upon himself to personally give her a warm welcome: “You married?”
“Yes,” she said.
“Sorry for you.”
When she didn’t meet his remarks with a chuckle or much more than a petulant acknowledgment, he reached into his bag of tricks for a new approach. Next up was a shallow attempt at Dora-the-Explora-level Spanish.
“Ohhh so you’re coming from work? Where do you work?”
“Somewhere… in Dallas.”
She looked annoyed.
When the advances once again didn’t go as planned, he changed his strategy.
“I like Mexican women. 17, 18, 19. I bet your man is black though. Hahaha. I’m glad you know Spanish though. Peequeenyo. Wanna see a peequeenyo? Hahaha I’m glad you know Spanish.”
He babbled on for minutes, with each new outburst more distasteful than the last. I felt for the woman. Trains have a weird way of turning every catcall into a lecture series. The man had time to try out every line in the book, throwing each one in her direction like a drunken game of darts.
Her dismay was obvious. Eventually, she flashed a look of disgust, stood up, and stormed off the bus.
Throughout the entire ordeal, I sat in the crosshairs of the exchange, staring forward in silence and artificial absentmindedness. Should I have said something? Told him to shut his stupid mouth and leave her alone? Or would that have been chauvinistic, implying she couldn’t handle the situation on her own?
For a while I saw it as one of those 10th grade English class essay prompts where there is no right answer, as long as you mean well and think logically. But in reality, in my situation on the bus, there was a right thing to do. And I didn’t do it.
In most settings throughout the adult world, when you see somebody throw a punch, you don’t stare in the other direction — you get the person to go away, regardless of whether or not the recipient of the haymaker can take it. My situation wasn’t all that different.
At diversity workshops and trainings for this or that, I hear a lot about using one’s privilege to support others who are being wronged. In the moment, though, I never know if I’m doing it right, so I back out more often I’d like to admit.
Back in Texas, I didn’t hear much about “Allyship” or any similar terms often associated with social justice. In fact, most of the people around me actively detested anything that sounded vaguely like it fed into “PC culture.” But that doesn’t mean I’m off the hook. No matter which words you use to describe it, caring about people you don’t know is a critical aspect of the human experience.
In practice, it isn’t as simple as it sounds. It’s often pretty easy to tell when something’s problematic or offensive, but when it comes to deciding what to do next, hesitations arise. I don’t want to say the wrong thing or make a scene or come off the wrong way. But if I let these worries cripple me into inaction, it’s just as bad as making some big mistake while trying to be helpful.
I wish I could outline the proper etiquette for affirming people’s worth and condemning hooliganism. I wish I knew the do’s and don’ts well enough to rattle them off on a whim. But I don’t.
What I do know, though, is that when a white friend of mine told a kid to stop using the N-word before I said it myself, I appreciated it. And something tells me that if I tell someone to quit being rude even when I’m not the person being targeted, somebody nearby will appreciate it too. And that makes it worth the risk.
Paul Russell is a sophomore at Cornell University. Russelling Feathers runs every other Wednesday this semester. Paul can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org