Wednesday, March 18, 2015

Bystander Intervention, and the Comeback

(reposted in an expanded version from Facebook)

I don't usually stop at Starbucks in the morning.  I make my own coffee, and even when I buy coffee, I prefer to get it from an independent shop.  But 1) I had to go to the post office, which is near Starbucks; 2) I had a question about a package of coffee I'd bought; 3) it was St. Patrick's Day, and I thought maybe they'd have something interesting to drink.  I'd already finished caffeine round one, and my tumbler was empty.

After deciding that nothing new was particularly appealing, I ordered a boring skim latte, made pleasantries with the cashier, paid, and went to wait at the end of the counter.  Up strode a female customer who was clearly not happy.

Barista, getting to the counter as fast as he can (he walks slowly because of a health issue): "can I help you?"

Female customer, standing with hand on hip and making a pissed off face, waving her coffee: "yeah, this tastes like water." Throws cup across the counter.

Barista, remaining calm and cheerful: "sure, let me remake that for you. What did you have?"

Customer, sneering: "Caramel Machiatto."

Me, after the barista walks away, deciding I can't watch this silently, in as kind a voice as I can muster: "You know, you could try to be a little nicer. It's not the easiest job."

Customer, now sneering at me: "You could mind your own business."

Me, agreeing: "You're right, I could. But I didn't."

Customer shouting after me, as I'm walking out the store: "I'm going to be late for work because of this ... and by the way, get a sense of fashion."


I am walking down the street towards the office, holding my coffee, wondering if I care about the customer's desperate attempt at a barb.  I love the sweater I'm wearing.  It's my most comfortable sweater.  I bought it at Urban Outfitters, ridiculously on sale, and was proud of myself for shopping, for myself, on a whim, at a store where I don't usually shop.  My pants are a hair too tight because it's winter, but you can't see that because the sweater is like a tent.  My shirt, deep forest green, is my only homage to St. Patrick's Day, not counting the shamrock socks, which you can't see because they're hidden by the old black boots, heels worn past the sole, right down to the plastic.  The heels could be colored in Sharpie, but I don't bother.

In a moment of revelation, I decide that I don't care.  And it is incredibly liberating to realize that the stupid comeback doesn't bother me.  And that while I can have sympathy for that woman, who was clearly not a happy person that morning (or maybe even at all), we can't let people walk all over other people.  For any reason.

Later, one of my students runs into me near the dining hall.  "I just have to tell you," she says, grinning, "you are a rock star.

"Huh?" I say.

"I was there this morning.  At Starbucks."

"Ohhhhh," I say, laughing. "You were there?"

She recounts the story for the people waiting in the lobby, and turns to me.  "And I thought, 'I want to be more like that.'"

I couldn't ask for a higher compliment.

But I am not a perfect person, and I also know that there are times when I should have spoken up, and didn't.


That was going to be the end of my story, but just this afternoon, I learned that in the early morning hours of March 18 (today, for those of you counting), a young black man, a junior at the University of Virginia, an Honor Committee student, a leader on campus with no criminal record, was beaten by police, requiring ten stitches to his head, when he tried to enter a bar. 

I don't care if he was presenting false ID.  There's no reason for what happened to him.

I am not going to equate standing up for a barista at Starbucks with refusing to be a bystander to racism, with questioning white privilege and doing something to level the playing field.  It is easier to say something when the stakes are lower, when all you have to worry about is someone critiquing your fashion sense.

But I want us to ask ourselves: how can we be bystanders, when injustice (both larger issues of racism and the smaller microaggressions that belie racist, classist, sexist attitudes) is not in our back yards, but on our front doorsteps?  And in the places we call home?
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  1. We can't. Or at least we shouldn't.

    And you are my hero. Took guts to say something to that woman. Her comeback speaks world's about her and how unhappy she is in life. The fact you called her out on her misbehavior demonstrates that stuff like that doesn't need to be tolerated. Thank you. Thank you. Thank you.

  2. Wow.

    You rock.

    And not that it matters, but I bet I'd love that sweater, too.

  3. Wow, you are an inspiration. I don't think I'd have the guts. Such a great role model for your students, too!!!

  4. You are an inspiration. Because too many people don't speak up.

    Have you seen this video? Possible trigger warnings, but it's specifically about why we should speak out and concrete ways to speak up:

  5. Think of how many people you may have influenced in person and here, via social media, to not merely stand by.

    I feel affected by this ripple you've started. And, like you, I don't have a great deal of care what bullies think of my fashion sense.

  6. I've been pondering the by-stander issue for a while - ever since I saw a domestic violence incident outside our local supermarket. The customers in this area are VERY mixed; the catchment includes a lot of international university students, public housing including refugees and residents of houses that sell for over a million $. Anyway, a clearly substance affected man was shouting at and trying to hit a woman when two quite small women in full face niqab veils & black coats waded in and physically got between the couple and led the woman away. I was quite a distance away (inside the supermarket in a line at the checkout) but I'm still not sure what I would have done if I'd been closer.

  7. Too many of us don't speak out (myself included). And we should. Thank you for standing up for kindness. The world needs more of you!

  8. Good for you! I think the only way to not be a passive bystander is to resolve never to be one. Make it part of your identity to speak up. Although I think that is prolly harder in the case of racism / microaggressions because we can second guess ourselves and in my case at least, I often can't quite figure out what bothered me about a situation till later.


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