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November 23, 2011 4:12 PM   Subscribe

How would you deal with hearing racist slurs on the subway? How could I have done this better?

Because we had a half day at work, I commuted home with my husband about 3pm this afternoon, just around the time the NYC schools get out.

At 14th street, a bunch of African-American kids got on the train. They were EXTREMELY loud, cursing at each other, etc. A (white) young man who was also commuting from work asked them to be quiet.

Well. The kids then spent the next three stops calling this guy a "p*ssy *ss n-word*.

DH and I... didn't do anything. The man they were screaming at sort of verbally fought with them, but nothing got physical, even though I think everyone else on the train figured it easily could have.

I was really mad at myself when I got off the train for not saying something, but I didn't know what I could have said that wouldn't have put me in danger.
posted by roomthreeseventeen to Human Relations (44 answers total) 4 users marked this as a favorite
 
It's basically impossible to get involved with this kind of situation without putting yourself in very real danger of very real physical violence. This is unfortunate, but there's nothing you really could have done.
posted by Tomorrowful at 4:16 PM on November 23, 2011 [5 favorites]


but I didn't know what I could have said that wouldn't have put me in danger.

If you're worried about being in danger, then it's best to say nothing.

What would have been your point in saying anything, what could you have accomplished in a 10 minute conversation?

Nothing. Let it go. If you're still bothered, go volunteer to work with kids somewhere.
posted by Brandon Blatcher at 4:19 PM on November 23, 2011


How would you deal with hearing racist slurs on the subway?

I have heard vicious ethnic slurs/insults on the subway (against Jews — not against me, though I'm Jewish). I didn't do anything. There was no reason to do anything.
posted by John Cohen at 4:22 PM on November 23, 2011


It's teenagers on the train. You don't say anything, you definitely don't do anything and if you are uncomfortable, you switch cars. Anything else is literally asking for trouble.
posted by griphus at 4:27 PM on November 23, 2011 [1 favorite]


words are just words, but if it got physical then be a witness if you cant help
posted by udon at 4:29 PM on November 23, 2011 [2 favorites]


The man was verbally attached for asking them to be quiet. Anything you could have possibly said at that point would have just caused more trouble. Best to let it be sometimes.
posted by alligatorman at 4:31 PM on November 23, 2011


I wouldn't see this as a "racial slur" issue. It was black kids using a black slur in reference to a white guy? I mean, I know it's complicated and problematic and are they co-opting the term or perpetuating it or what, but the fact is this is just how black kids talk. Clearly they weren't intending it as a racial slur against a white guy, and it would be pretty weird to intervene and try to educate them about the history and meaning of the word, particularly if you aren't black yourself.

I think the more apt question is simply whether you should intervene when groups of kids are aggressively confronting people in public.
posted by dixiecupdrinking at 4:32 PM on November 23, 2011 [25 favorites]


How would you deal with hearing racist slurs on the subway?
The kids almost certainly didn't mean this as a racial slur. If that's your concern, rest easy. If you were upset at yourself for not stepping in to keep them from hurling insults at each other, then the rest of the answers here are spot on.
posted by daboo at 4:33 PM on November 23, 2011


(And the answer to that is probably, "No, unless someone is in actual physical danger and you can intervene without causing harm to yourself.")
posted by dixiecupdrinking at 4:33 PM on November 23, 2011


If I could tell the kids were just being punks, then I might have said something authority-figure-like, like "knock it off" and "behave yourselves".

If it looked like they were scrapping for a fight, I probably would have kept my mouth shut, not wanting to escalate. But I would probably call or text 911.
posted by gjc at 4:33 PM on November 23, 2011


I've been in this situation a few times on the CTA. I just got up and walked over like it was my stop coming up, and looked at the instigators and said "Hey, howya doin!!!" Which totally sort of confused and defused the whole situation. The abusee kid kind of caught the clue and shut up, and the abuser was dealing with me instead of him. At that point the loudmouth didnt know what the hell to think, and just gave up on the hassle. Then agan, I'm a veteran, 6'6 and about 220 and look like something somebody already ran over twice. YMMV

Confuse and defuse. As long as you had the hubby there to cover you? Stand up and start singing as loud as you can in an operatic style...

"PUSSY ASS NIGGER! PUSSY NIGGER PUSSY NIGGER PUSSY ASS NIG -ER!!!!" to the tune of the Hallelujiah chorus. Get the whole car to join in!

Yes, people re going to think you are nuts. But it will shut down the confrontation, make some people laugh, some people uncomfortable, but I can guarantee you two things.

Those kids are going to get off the train saying "Now that motherfuckinbitch is crazy."

And you are going to go home and call and email all your peeps saying "I just did the most awesome thng!!!"
posted by timsteil at 4:34 PM on November 23, 2011 [48 favorites]


I work in a high school and hear it all day, everyday. I say something there because I am in a position of authority. On the train you are not. The first commenter had it right- there's really nothing to do and it is very very depressing. In fact my coworker was talking about the proliferation of fighting on train videos being posted on youtube and bystanders doing nothing...it's nice to think the public would rise up en masse and 'put an end to this sort of thing' but the fact is, no one else wants to put themselves in either physical or mental harm's way.

BrandonBlatcher is also correct- if you are really concerned with the youth of today, then volunteering would be a great start. Or be grateful that for you that being exposed to a barrage of cursing and potential violence was only a one-off experience and not par for the course of your daily commute/job like some of us!
posted by bquarters at 4:35 PM on November 23, 2011 [1 favorite]


Here is a story of the one time I saw someone stand up to teeange assholes. If you're not prepared to do something similar, don't bother at all.
posted by griphus at 4:38 PM on November 23, 2011 [1 favorite]


Here's another story of someone standing up to teenage assholes. My advice? Just ignore it unless there's a serious threat of bodily harm.
posted by Slinga at 4:48 PM on November 23, 2011 [1 favorite]


Confuse and defuse. As long as you had the hubby there to cover you? Stand up and start singing as loud as you can in an operatic style...

"PUSSY ASS NIGGER! PUSSY NIGGER PUSSY NIGGER PUSSY ASS NIG -ER!!!!" to the tune of the Hallelujiah chorus. Get the whole car to join in!


I was once in a similar situation, and the person I was with had the sense to stand up, turn away from the situation, and start singing the Brady Bunch theme song. And then Gilligan's Island. I maintain to this day that next was Sesame Street, but he claims it was Mr. Rogers' Neighborhood. Anyway, I joined in as well, and then the people we were looking at, and then the people behind us, and we have no idea when the four punks got off the train, but eventually our stop came, and we got off, and kept singing all the way to the nearest bar, where we got very, very drunk with three other people from the train including the guy and the girl who were the original target of the four punks.
posted by Etrigan at 4:50 PM on November 23, 2011 [35 favorites]


You asked how to deal with hearing racist slurs and my best advice would be to steer clear from the situation unless you can defend yourself and the other person. If you choose to step in but cannot stand up for yourself and the other person then you will only make the situation worse. The kids probably felt threatened and decided to use those words to make themselves feel more secure. People also tend to use words like that with other people such as "stop being such an ass/pussy/etc..." and although it's inappropriate, people in general use certain words to make themselves feel better.

If this was on a bus rather than a subway, then you could have walked up to the bus driver and they could have told those people to get off of the bus. I don't know how it's like for other people, but I know that it's like that where I live. In regards to what else you could have done, you would have to consider whether or not you would want to remain safe or whether or not you would want to stand up for the person.

If you want to remain safe then do not say anything, but this can be very problematic for obvious reasons. If you want to get help then you could have tried dialing 911 or the telephone number for the subway public transit line.
posted by sincerely-s at 4:53 PM on November 23, 2011


On my commuter train there is a button with a sign to the effect of "Do not push this button except in cases of emergency, barf, or harassment."

Is there a button like that in your train?
posted by Sys Rq at 4:57 PM on November 23, 2011 [1 favorite]



On my commuter train there is a button with a sign to the effect of "Do not push this button except in cases of emergency, barf, or harassment."


If this means the button that stops the train, no, do not push that button in the NYC transit system at least. Now you'll be stuck in the middle of a tunnel with some abusive, potentially violent people and will have to wait until someone gets to you. This is not a good idea. Even in cases of illness they advise that you don't push the button unless you really feel like you can't make it to the next stop and get help outside the train.
posted by sweetkid at 5:07 PM on November 23, 2011 [4 favorites]


I think it just alerts the train cops. The emergency stop is a separate thing, a pull cord. YMMV. Always read the directions.
posted by Sys Rq at 5:11 PM on November 23, 2011


Yes you could have pushed the button but I don't think there's anything you could have done better. I have become involved (not through my own volition) with kids physiclly and it does not teach them a lesson, it will simply be a horrible memory for you and a war story for them. Teens are sometimes awful and we just have to live with them.
posted by boobjob at 5:11 PM on November 23, 2011


Here's a story about a guy who asked some people on the subway not to spit: Gothamist. The video may be very disturbing to some. If you're (i) not damn sure from reading the mood/people that your intervention won't increase the likelihood of escalation to violence or (ii) prepared to handle anything that comes, I'd stay out of it.
posted by slide at 5:12 PM on November 23, 2011 [1 favorite]


Yeah, not to blame the victim but in NYC teenage kids are really loud when they get out of school in the city. They are like that every day. At first it sounds like some emergency is going on, but it's just how they are when they get out. I'm surprised the guy said anything - not blaming him though, the kids usually seem harmless, though loud, and I'm surprised they got abusive.
posted by sweetkid at 5:16 PM on November 23, 2011 [1 favorite]


I don't really see how a bunch of black kids for calling a white guy the n-word is a racial slur, and how chiding them for your own discomfort as a white person would have been anything but patronizingly racist. Don't get too Nice White Lady over it.
posted by The Master and Margarita Mix at 5:21 PM on November 23, 2011 [7 favorites]


Those kids probably just wanted to be loud and obnoxious on the subway, and the young guy just gave them a target by trying to shush them. Just about everything you could have done would have also made you another target. It's a crappy situation. Obnoxious people love putting those around them into crappy, no-win situations.

You could have recorded them and told a transit cop about them, for whatever that would have been worth.

Besides, shushing people on the subway just about never works. The commuter didn't deserve that treatment, but he should have known better. The only time I've seen shushing come close to working was when a kid was listening to way-too-loud hip-hop on his headphones. The woman next to him produced a speaker(!?!) from her pocketbook, which she started blasting in his face. The confused kid took his headphones off and she told him that that's what he was doing to everyone else. That got the kid to keep it to a dull roar for the rest of the ride, but you never know how people will react - he could have also just plain decked her.
posted by Sticherbeast at 5:24 PM on November 23, 2011 [4 favorites]


Their retort seemed to me homophobic as well as racist but I agree there is nothing to be done about teenagers on the train, especially when somebody pokes them with a stick, as it were, and they react predictably. Anything you could have said would have likely escalated the situation.
posted by Anitanola at 5:31 PM on November 23, 2011


I was really mad at myself when I got off the train for not saying something

Why would you say something? That white guy tried to say something -- civilly, it appears -- and his efforts were rewarded with verbal abuse. This was not a situation where anyone was in danger or breaking the law, so your intervention would be completely optional. And likely, you and your husband would have been subjected to "bitch," your husband taunted with "hey man keep a tighter leash on your bitch," and the situation would not have been improved at all.

I'm a big fan of minding my own business unless my involvement is absolutely necessary.
posted by jayder at 5:41 PM on November 23, 2011


The best thing to do is to ask the conductor or a transit cop to do something.
posted by KokuRyu at 6:08 PM on November 23, 2011


Here in Detroit:

Intervention = you also get shot.

If things escalate to physical violence then call the police on your cell, otherwise, decide if "standing up for what is right" is potentially worth "your life".
posted by Shouraku at 6:10 PM on November 23, 2011


I'm not defending it, but I think maybe you need to make some allowances for how people talk in New York City. The "N-word" in particular is used by people of all races, about people of all races. It's pretty much just a substitute for "guy" or "dude" for a lot of New Yorkers.

So obviously these kids were being jerks, but what they were saying was probably kind of along the lines of "screw you, old man!" I'm not saying it's OK behavior, but I don't think any intervention was required by you. It was just kids being jerky kids.
posted by drjimmy11 at 6:18 PM on November 23, 2011 [1 favorite]


Timsteil and Etrigan have it. As someone who comes from a long line of native New Yorkers, I can tell you that the way to deal with most "situations" is to act crazy. I once retrieved a stolen boom box back from a group of thugs by stomping up to them, putting my hands on my hips and informing them that if they didn't give it back, I was going to tear off their testicles with my bare hands and feed them to their ownselves for dinner. I weighed about 115 lbs back then, so that was a pretty ballsy thing for me to do. I made sure that I looked just crazy enough to try it, and they returned the boom box. Crazy works in NYC.
posted by MexicanYenta at 6:47 PM on November 23, 2011 [2 favorites]


You don't say anything in that situation unless you want to get knocked out and/or shot.
posted by empath at 6:57 PM on November 23, 2011


Timsteil and Etrigan have it. As someone who comes from a long line of native New Yorkers, I can tell you that the way to deal with most "situations" is to act crazy

I must confess, regardless of my size, that is my default position in situations like that. I stole it from a singer-songwriter named Rick Soens (an old friend - I wont link, but please get your Google on) who told me that once he was on tour and in a dicey spot walking back to his hotel with his guitar and is looking at a gang of toughs about half a block ahead.

So he just started TALKING TO HIMSELF VERY LOUDLY IN AN ENGLISH ACCENT!!!! with his eyes all bugged out.

Almost pissed myself when he told me. He just said "Pffft...It was like parting the Red Sea."

It works.
posted by timsteil at 6:58 PM on November 23, 2011 [9 favorites]


I also advise doing nothing. They were minors using a slur that is mainly racist against their own race, how can you possibly win that one?
posted by devymetal at 7:03 PM on November 23, 2011


Get some headphones and ignore them.
posted by bradbane at 7:32 PM on November 23, 2011 [1 favorite]


I still think the best (safest) response was to do nothing (seriously, don't be a moron). But beyond that, I think it depends on your objective. What did you want to have happen by saying something?
posted by J. Wilson at 7:45 PM on November 23, 2011 [1 favorite]


The main issue was that the teens were harassing an innocent commuter, and the OP wishes that she could have stopped them. Whether the teens' words properly counted as racial slurs or not is beside the point.
posted by Sticherbeast at 8:08 PM on November 23, 2011 [7 favorites]


The new blue seat cars have an intercom button to alert the conductor.
posted by brujita at 8:23 PM on November 23, 2011


I couldn't help but think of the Martin Sheen film The Incident (1967).

If you were to say something is the situation you describe; best to consider potential consequences.
posted by rmmcclay at 1:53 AM on November 24, 2011


I confess that I don't really understand why there is a need to do anything or what it would have accomplished here. It sounds like these kids were loud, the commuter asked them to be quiet, they yelled at him (and I'm with those who are feeling this isn't really a slur issue), and then they all proceeded to engage with each other. Why didn't the commuter get off the train, is what I'm wondering.

Personally, I wouldn't intervene unless it's someone who can't defend themselves or it turns violent. It's not my responsibility to police the train, and someone who is "sort of verbally [fighting]" back is contributing just as much to the disruption.
posted by sm1tten at 8:30 AM on November 24, 2011 [1 favorite]


I would agree with those who say that, if your issue was a possible demonstration of racism, then this isn't really an example.

However, if you agreed with they guy who apparently found them to be disruptive, and asked them to be quiet, I would personally be on the side of standing with him and being another voice indicating that they're being rude and disrespectful in an enclosed public space. The only way that kind of behaviour will be changed is if it's confronted. There may have been 20 other people in that train car who felt the same way you and the confronter did, who were also afraid to speak up or didn't know what to say. If someone else stood with him, and then someone else, and someone else, it becomes increasingly effective.

(Salt-grains: I have been told that I don't always have the strongest sense of self-preservation, and would agree that some intelligent gauging of the situation would be in order.)
posted by the luke parker fiasco at 3:31 PM on November 24, 2011


Yeah, drjimmy11, the N-word isn't equal to "dude" or "guy" "by people of all races" or "about people of all races" in New York. Like, not at all. That's a crazy thing to say. White people cannot and do not casually use that word to mean anything approximating "dude" or other inoffensive addresses. Black people use it that way all the time, sure. We can argue all day about whether or not coopting that word has been useful in any way, but that's not the issue. Like, sorry, but if I saw some Dominican kid, say, call a white kid the N-word, I would be truly surprised. That's not a cross-race word.
posted by pineappleheart at 11:18 PM on November 24, 2011 [1 favorite]


Nthing that your perception of the racial slur isn't the issue here. Next time just move to the next car. Make a big show of it if you want to send a 'message' -- however, those kids won't care. The subway is generally a horrible place, but once I realized the only person responsible for my comfort on the subway is *me,* my public transit experience in NYC improved immeasurably. Headphones up, ladies and gentlemen!
posted by sideofwry at 3:41 PM on November 26, 2011


First, I do agree with everyone above saying its best to not get involved and/or diffuse the situation in some odd non-confrontational way. It could be dangerous and escalate and best not to get involved less there is some potential danger to others. The only way these kids will effectively change their behavior is what they learn at home.

However, and this is more a point in the broader sense, I do find that its unfortunate that society has allowed people like this act the way they do in public because they get away with it.

To give you an example, see as mentioned in this comment from above:

"Their retort seemed to me homophobic as well as racist but I agree there is nothing to be done about teenagers on the train, especially when somebody pokes them with a stick, as it were, and they react predictably. Anything you could have said would have likely escalated the situation."

Notice the .."especially when somebody pokes them with a stick, as it were, and they react predictably." The react predictably is the part that gets me. And this tends to be the running theme of these situations. But I question why the rude behavior is predicable in the first place. These kids KNOW that no one is likely to say anything and will avoid them like the plague no matter what they say. My feeling is that with them knowing this, it enables rude public behavior and every time people just ignore them it re-enforces their truth.

The best way I can relate my point is terrorism. Every time someone drew Mohammad, someone got death threats, killed, property destroyed, etc etc. One could say that "when somebody pokes them with a stick, as it were, and they react predictably. "

But this is the very problem. This gives terrorism their true power. If we keep predicting the behavior, then it will be a self-fulfilling prophecy. Every time we cower from drawing a cartoon character, burning a book, or criticizing a religion, it’s one more battle we lost in the psychological war against terrorism.
posted by amazingstill at 9:06 AM on November 28, 2011


Start dancing. As terribly as you can. Everyone will be too busy laughing at you to continue shouting.

I can attest that this works. A couple of years ago, I was sitting on the subway (3 train represent!) when one of the dance troupes came in (you know, the young guys who do some break dancing and acrobatics with the poles). As usual, some people ignored them, some watched, they passed the hat, they got a couple of bucks. Whatever.

But then an older lady starting yelling at them about how what they were doing was SINNING. They were SINNERS and they needed to stop SINNING and don't they know the GOOD BOOK says not to do this? The guys ignored her and left. She kept shouting.

A middle-aged guy started yelling back at her. "What are you TALKING about? Where in the Bible does it say you can't DANCE?!" The two people screaming at each other were of different ethnicities, and that fact got, uh, mentioned as they continued to shout at each other. It was getting really heated really fast.

I walked over from the other end of the subway car, got between them and said like the coach breaking up a fight "Hey! Whoa, whoa, whoa, come on now! There's an easy way to settle this." Stone silence. All eyes on me.

"I'm gonna dance."

And then I started humming some horrendous Girl From Ipanema-style "melody" and doing the worst, ugliest, swinging-around-the-pole Elaine-Benes-approved thumb-jerky just really awful dance. And what had moments ago been an increasingly (racially) charged situation was now just a subway car full to the brim of people laughing their asses off at me.

Tension gone, shouting stopped, bad situation averted, I took a bow and backed off the train as everybody applauded.

Silliness: stopping subway fights since 2006.
posted by davidjmcgee at 7:25 PM on December 5, 2011 [1 favorite]


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