On Monday, one of our co-workers came into the office visibly shaken. She told us how the day before she’d been with her family waiting for a table at a restaurant when an elderly woman looked straight at her husband and said, “Go back to China.” He responded, “What did you just say?”
The woman looked away. Their daughter caught the intensity in his voice and asked what happened. He repeated it and immediately a man walked over to say, “if she responds, I’ll deal with it.” He was there with his young son and added, “this is not what we want to teach our children.”
My friend quickly told her husband, and the rest of the family, “let’s go with compassion.” The following day, their daughter phoned the restaurant and spoke to the manager, who then called her father and apologized profusely, saying had she known, it would have been dealt with then and there.
We hear about these kinds of racist barbs all the time, but in the 30 years this couple has lived in Canada, they had actually never experienced anything like it, and it shook them.
But what shook me was that it was only after our co-worker told her story that our reporter began talking about something that had happened to her a week earlier. She was standing outside Lansdowne Centre when a young man walked by and said, “you dropped something.”
She looked down, but when she looked back up, he said, “you dropped your disease” (a take on the video of a man in Burnaby telling an Asian woman,“ you dropped your coronavirus.”) I asked her why she didn’t tell me at the time. She said she didn’t tell anyone, not even her boyfriend, because she was too upset — and ashamed. Ouch. Obviously, she’s not the one who should feel shame but bullying (and we’re on heels of Pink Shirt Day) is about making the victim feel powerless or weak. And who feels good about being powerless and weak?
The fact both of these women had never before experienced the direct punch of racism is a good thing. But the fact both experienced it in just the past couple of weeks is worrisome.
We have a story online in which a UBC professor talks about the long and sordid history of disease and racism. It seems humanity has a bad habit of blaming the people (and anyone who looks like them) from where the virus originated. It’s ridiculous and it’s wrong, and it’s wrong not just because it’s mean and nasty, but also because it distracts us from the underlying issues that lead to plagues and so-called “natural” disasters, issues such as power, politics and poverty. It also distracts us from what we need to do which, in this case, is build a robust global health network that recognizes viruses don’t respect borders.
But back to the man in the restaurant who stepped up to say something about what we teach our kids — in other words, the bystander. Because, frankly, that’s what most of us are most of the time. In the moment, it rarely feels like a position of power, but, to hear the experts tell it, that’s exactly what it is. Be it against a racist barb or global inequality, it’s the bystanders who determine if a line in the sand will be drawn.
As this outbreak unfolds, more racist barbs will be slung, but I’m also betting so will more man-in-the-restaurant examples. After all, what do we want to teach our kids?