Last month I was sitting on a bus stop bench waiting for a bus when someone drove by and yelled “Racist! Racist! Racist!” At least, I think that’s what he said, but I can’t be sure as the sound was mixed in with other traffic noises. At first, I felt just confused, then annoyed, then powerless. Maybe that was the goal.
At first I thought I was being accused of being a racist because I was sitting at one end of the bench and at the other end was a man of South Asian origin who was talking to some friends. Did the yeller think I was a racist for sitting apart from the other person? Then I thought perhaps he was calling the man at the other end of the bench a racist for sitting apart from me. Then I wondered if there was something else going on behind me that I was not aware of. In any case, it was all over in less than a minute and I’m still wondering what it was all about.
Why do people shout things from moving cars? I think I know the answer before I even asked the question. I think they imagine they are in a protective bubble that obscures their identity—a bit like being a commenter on the Internet. If you think you cannot be identified, you can say all sorts of socially unacceptable things because no-one can challenge you directly. You can watch the dismay and indignation from the safety of your cloak of anonymity.
Sometimes, though, this rudeness gets caught on camera. Recently, we have had two such events in Edmonton. In the first, a cyclist was insulted by a racial slur from a man in a pickup truck. The cyclist chose to confront the driver and his passenger and recorded the subsequent conversation. The recording was posted online and became news. As a consequence, the driver has since apologized to the cyclist.
Yesterday, a video journalist was recording a piece on how friendly the city is when, ironically, a man yelled from a passing car “The n…..rs are coming. The n…..rs are coming.” The journalist, who is black, walked up to the car as it was stopped at a traffic light and offered the man an opportunity to say that to his face. The man declined, but then as he drove away he yelled it again from the window of the car. I shake my head.
Each of the people yelling in these incidents is white and their targets in the most recent events are people of colour. Are white people feeling so threatened and so inadequate that they cannot confront their fears directly or with dignity? Have these emotions been stirred up by the inflamed rhetoric of some politicians? Is there something in the water?
I am not aware of yelling from cars being a problem here before. The only other time I saw something similar was last year when someone yelled “Grwolyfmnk!” at me as I was walking along a residential sidewalk in San Jose. It stopped me in my tracks, and I made “What the heck?” gestures at his rear view mirror. That’s another event I’m still wondering about. I’d really like to know what he said.
I imagine that these yellers-from-cars drive away with big satisfied grins on their faces. Yeah, they got us. They told us what’s what. If they only knew that half the time we don’t know what they said or why, they might stop doing it, but somehow I doubt it. I don’t think they are capable of reaching logical conclusions. That would involve respectful dialogue.
Addendum: The person I identified as a video journalist is actually an actor named Jesse Lipscombe (@thelipscombe). Together with Edmonton’s mayor, Don Iveson (@doniveson), Lipscombe has begun a campaign to address racist and otherwise inappropriate public behaviour. It is called #makeitawkward, and the goal is to encourage bystander intervention in addressing social injustice and ignorance. Let’s all make it awkward for people who are racist, or ignorant, or bullies!
Image source: Pixabay under license through Creative Commons (CC0)