PUBLICATION

In Public


Speak Up!
In Public

Gauge your own comfort level in these situations, and always consider personal safety when choosing to speak up in public.

Allies can be vital in such settings, as can understanding the price of silence. If you don't speak up to that store clerk, that flight attendant or that security guard, who else will?

When two — or three or four or more — people come together, as strangers, to speak in concert against everyday bigotry, pressure for change emerges.

Whether the encounter is with a waiter, a police officer or a cab driver, consider two things: power and policy. Who holds power over the offending person? And are there policies in place that might support your campaign? If so, be vigilant about moving your complaint through proper channels. If not, ask why such polices don't exist — and keep asking, all the way up the ladder.

 

A Stranger's Remarks

A gay man in Oregon writes about walking down a street the day after a local Gay Pride event. On the sidewalk, he passes a man who tells a female companion, loudly, "There were fags all over the place. I felt like killing them."

A lesbian who at the time was dating a transgender woman shares a similar story of being called "dykes" by someone from across the street. A gay man tells of routinely being called "faggot" while walking down city streets.

A California woman is apartment-hunting with her mother. They are in a restaurant, making friendly conversation with people at another table. Her mother asks which neighborhoods are good for students. The man at the other table says, "Pretty much all of the neighborhoods in town are fine; we try to keep the niggers and Mexicans out of the city limits."

She says, "I was shocked and didn't know what to do. How do you confront a stranger in a restaurant? Or do you? I'll never forget the shock and anger I felt at that moment."

Assess your surroundings.

A heated exchange with a stranger can escalate into physical violence; assess the situation before you respond. Is the speaker with a group of people? Is the space deserted? Are you alone? Are children present? Consider such things before responding.

Say nothing.

A questioning glance may be an effective and non-confrontational response in a situation in which you feel unsafe speaking directly. Keep moving.

Say something.

If you choose to raise the issue, state your beliefs clearly: "I find that language very bigoted. It offends me." Or, "I think it's wrong to stereotype people."

Speak to the proprietor.

If the incident happens in a business, leave. But before you walk out, let the managers know why you're leaving: "The man at the table next to mine kept using the N-word. It made me lose my appetite. Perhaps you should speak to him so you don't lose more business."

Report the incident to an advocacy group.

Local advocacy groups, like gay and lesbian centers and local minority alliances, often keep check on the pulse of a community. Call them; let them know what you heard, when and where. They may see patterns you don't and can work with local government to address ongoing concerns.

 

Biased Customer Service

In Washington state, a white woman is in a doctor's waiting room when she notices a Russian-speaking immigrant being treated poorly by the receptionist at the front counter. The woman stands up and joins the man at the counter: "I just stood next to him and wouldn't leave until the receptionist finally helped him."

An African American man in the grocery store notices a cashier treating a non-English-speaking woman badly. After checking to see if the woman wants help, the man confronts the manager: "These people live in our community, this person spends money in your store, and your store has a responsibility to be part of this community."

A Colorado woman uses a wheelchair. She is boarding a plane with her husband when the flight attendant says, to the husband, "Will she need help being seated?"

Speak for yourself.

If you're the target of rude customer service, let the person know: "I deserve to be treated with respect in an establishment where I spend money." Or, "Please ask me, not my husband, what I need."

Make eye contact.

Look at other people witnessing this exchange. Use body language to appeal for their assistance and support.

Step up.

Don't allow someone to be mistreated when you have the power to help. Don't stick solely to "your" issues. Speak up against bigotry wherever it happens, whoever is involved. As the man in the grocery store said, "Your problem is my problem. We're in this together."

 

Bigoted Corporate Policy

A Latino family stops at a fast-food restaurant where a Latina employee greets them at the counter. The husband orders, "Dos del numero uno y dos del numero cuatro, por favor."

The clerk responds, "Can you repeat that in English, please?"

The husband repeats the order in English, then adds, "But you speak Spanish; you have an accent just like mine."

The clerk looks over her shoulder and says, "Yes, I do, but I'm not supposed to speak Spanish here; I could get in trouble with my supervisor."

On the drive home, the man's 4-year-old daughter is crying.

They pull over to see what's wrong, and the little girl whispers in her mother's ear, in Spanish, "I don't know how to speak a lot of English, and I don't want to get in trouble."

Discuss, don't blame.

Discuss the policy with front-line employees, asking for more information about what lies behind the policy. "What's the problem if we want to speak Spanish? We don't harm anyone. Do you know why they have this rule? What is behind it?"

Move up the ladder.

Ask to speak to the on-site manager, then ask that person to explain the policy further and describe why it exists. Request contact information for the owner or corporate headquarters. Also ask what the formal complaint procedure is, then use it.

Get it in writing.

Ask to see written store policy, either from the on-site manager or from the owner or corporate headquarters. Ask who ultimately determines the policy, then pursue changes through that person.

Appeal to the media.

When companies are unresponsive to your inquiries, take the issue to your local paper or to the national press. Seek out journalists who write about race relations or community diversity. Explain what has happened, and provide documentation.

 

My Own Bias

A woman is in a crowded movie theater. Unable to find enough side-by-side seats for her entire group, she finds herself looking for a seat alone:

"I found myself making choices of rejecting a seat based on who might be on either side of me — choices made about skin color, ethnicity, age, gender and so on. At some point, I realized what I was doing and made a conscious decision to choose my seat based on its distance from and orientation to the screen rather than on who I might be sitting next to."

Be self-critical.

Save someone else the trouble of confronting you. Pay attention to your everyday actions; be conscious of how bias is affecting what you do — and what you don't do.

Change your behavior.

When you catch yourself in a biased action, change course immediately, and learn the lesson for good.

Share your experiences.

Be open with others about biased behavior. Let others hear what you've learned.

 

Racial Profiling

An African American government employee is stopped four times in a single month while driving home. One of the stops involves at least four police cars. His "infraction"? An alleged illegal lane change. He asks, "Would a white man in my same position accept this as normal? Why should I have to accept it as normal?"

An African American night security guard, the frequent target of such traffic stops, says, "I live a simple life. I go to work, and I come home. I don't drink or do drugs or sell drugs. I don't like being harassed. I didn't do anything wrong. What really is the problem? This is happening for no other reason than the color of my skin."

An African American minister is pulled over while driving home from Sunday service, in full view of many of his parishioners. He is forced to complete a field sobriety test. When he asks why he has been pulled over, he is told simply, "You swerved."

Confront the bias, later.

Police officers hold a lot of power, and arguing with them in the moment generally won't serve you well. While anger and frustration are normal and reasonable responses to racial profiling, strive for calmness.

Inquire and document.

Ask why you've been stopped. Ask for the officer's badge number. Note the identification numbers on the police car. Write down every detail you can immediately after the incident.

Lodge a formal complaint.

Each time an unnecessary stop occurs, use official procedures to file a grievance. Community relations divisions inside police departments often are the best place to start.

Create an alliance.

Reach out to friends and family who also experience racial profiling. Ask them to commit to filing complaints at each offense, too. Keep records of everyone's experiences. Also seek help from supportive community groups.

Raise awareness.

Contact the media and ask for coverage of the issue. Provide names and contact information of people willing to talk about their experiences.

 

Retail Racism

An 18-year-old Hispanic woman goes to a Florida craft store to spend her birthday money. A manager follows her and asks repeatedly what she is looking for. Other customers, all white, are browsing without being asked such questions. When she protests, she is asked to leave. "I thought those decades were gone, when they could throw you out of a store just because you're Hispanic."

A white woman in Indiana notices store clerks shadowing two African American shoppers, taking items out of the shoppers' hands and replacing them on the racks, then standing by the dressing room door when one of the women tries on a garment.

A Latina woman is shopping in a major department store in Iowa. A young sales clerk follows her closely but doesn't speak to her. When she moves, he moves; when she stands still, he stands still. The woman considers confronting him but notices him returning to speak to his manager, an older man.

Find the source.

The clerk may simply be following store policy. Ask why the clerk or security officer is following you (or someone else). Ask to see the written policies on discrimination. Share your experience and observations with company officials.

Stage a personal public protest.

Go to the customer service desk or check-out counter. Cancel your store credit card on the spot, and say why you're doing so — loud enough for others to hear. Ask for the manager and tell that person the store has lost your business.

Tell others.

Let friends and family know what you observed or experienced. Encourage them to refrain from shopping at a store that practices racial profiling or to contact the store to ask about such policies and practices.