On the receiving end of xenophobia in the UK - how to move forward?
December 1, 2014 7:17 AM   Subscribe

I was born in Denmark, but fell in love with a Scotsman so moved permanently to the UK eight years ago. On Friday I was on public transport with a nice 50-something lady with nice hair and a posh accent. Without any prompting she spent the next hour spouting xenophobic nonsense about EU immigrants. The incident really rattled me and I'm struggling to move on. Any tips? More details below.

I was worried about racism before I moved across to Scotland, but until now I’ve only had a few harmless drunks shouting things about foreigners.

However, on Friday I was on public intercity transport and found myself next to a nice 50-something lady with nice hair, sensible shoes, a jolly yellow rain jacket and a very posh accent. Without any prompting she began to inform everyone around us that Polish drivers were to blame for British road accidents, that Europeans had a different driving culture (“if you can call it culture“), that she once went to Germany and was shocked by how drivers did not stop for her when she crossed the street, and how foreigners coming to Britain needed to sit a driving exam before being allowed to drive on good British roads filled with decent Britons (although when challenged, she allowed that tourists may have a fortnightly exemption if they pledged to be law-abiding). This was the start of an hour-long monologue directed at different people around her. EU immigrants were welfare benefit cheats, killing people on the streets, stealing jobs from honest Britons, invading Britain under the cover of EU laws, intent on destroying Britain &c. The solution was clear, according to the nice lady. All foreigners should be thrown out of Britain! “What we need is a revolution!”

At the beginning I was tempted to interject. I wanted to challenge her on what she was saying but I didn’t. Instead I started shaking. She noticed – oh, she noticed – as did a nice gentleman across from me who started talking to me about the sock I was knitting. Before I answered him, I had to decide which accent to use, jesus. Did I want to use my own soft mix of Kiwi/Scandi/Scottish or did I want to go as neutral as possible? It was really stressful. Eventually I began laughing every time she said something particularly outrageous. It was a choice between laughter and tears – and I did not want to show her any tears. My laughter shut her up, finally, and she spent the rest of the journey reading her newspaper.

Since Friday I have made a tonne of speeches in my head: "I am one of those EU immigrants you fear so much. Look at me. I hold two university degrees. I’ve never claimed any benefits. I run my own business. In my own country, people are saying similar things about my Scottish partner. What do you want us to do?" - but that is hindsight talking. I've struggled to move on as my head replays all the things I could have said and I also have an overwhelming sense of guilt and sadness. I keep justifying to myself why I am not bad despite being an immigrant. It was easy to dismiss xenophobia from drunks, but it is far harder to forget something coming from "a nice upstanding member of society".

How do I move on? And how do I deal with situations like this in the future?
posted by kariebookish to Human Relations (31 answers total) 9 users marked this as a favorite
Nothing you could have said would have made any difference. People who go on hour long rants on public transit are mentally ill (no matter what they look like) and there's nothing any bystander could have done to change her mind or make it stop.
posted by bleep at 7:26 AM on December 1, 2014 [61 favorites]

How do I move on? And how do I deal with situations like this in the future?

You need to accept that you are not responsible for arseholes or their actions.

Despite your own prejudice against what you expected from someone who dressed and represented as 'normal' or 'judged to be above that kind of thinking' to you (hence your in depth explanation of her dress and accent) arseholes come in all types and sizes and shapes. Even purportedly intelligent and classy presenting ones. It was jarring coming from someone you didn't expect it from, by the sound of it, but it's just an areshole. Would it have been less traumatic if it had been a skinhead with a Union jack shirt and Doc Martens on?

She was an arsehole. Accept that and stop trying to take on her views as somehow being your responsibility and/or that you somehow need to answer to them. You don't. Her views don't make sense, stem from ignorance and/or tiny experience of the actual 'problem' as she sees it and doubtless shitty. low-brow media reporting.

(I don't prescribe to the perspective that they are de facto mentally ill, but it's a possibility).

I wanted to challenge her on what she was saying but I didn’t. Instead I started shaking.

If you are not confident to object at the time (it sounds like it was an intimidating situation for you) then you don't *need* to do anything. And choosing not to do anything doesn't make you bad. There is absolutely no way you would have even made a dent in her arseholishness, so I suspect your guilt is aimed at some idea that you could have removed some of the unpleasantness of her views 'if only I'd said the right thing". In the cold light of day, you surely see that while her arguments are easily demolished, there's almost zero chance that anything you could have said would have changed her mind. So stop beating yourself up that you didn't say anything, would be my suggestion.
posted by Brockles at 7:30 AM on December 1, 2014 [14 favorites]

Change seats if possible. If not, respond in Danish that you don't speak English. Avoid eye contact.
posted by Carol Anne at 7:34 AM on December 1, 2014 [1 favorite]

I would chalk it up to garden variety public transit ranting and just move on. Some people are assholes. Some assholes are very loud. Public transit tends to really bring it out.
posted by Sara C. at 7:34 AM on December 1, 2014 [4 favorites]

Best answer: Oh, I am so sorry you had to deal with this. I moved to the UK nine years ago. As a white-looking, educated native English speaker from North America, I'm presumably one of the "good" immigrants, but I too have sat frozen in disbelief through bonkers, unprompted racist spiels like this.

There is a subset of English racists who are unnervingly jovial and extraverted. More than a few white friends of mine (native British and otherwise) have recounted interactions similar to yours with people who glide seamlessly from pleasant banter into absolutely batshit insane xenophobic ranting, presumably on the assumption that their views are reasonable and normal and secretly shared by all white people. More often than not it's a cabbie and the rest of the ride has unfolded with the passenger sitting in miserable, fuming silence while the cabbie rants all the way to Heathrow or wherever.

I don't know why they do it. Perhaps deep in some part of their tiny ratlike brains (apologies to rats) they know their views are vile and blind and unfair and they're seeking social reassurance for them. The last time it happened I did made a point of calling the person on it, briefly and non-shamingly but firmly (Her: "That used to be a nice neighborhood, but it's full of Pakis now." Me: *long pause, steady eye contact* "Like my father?") and it resulted in a remarkably fast climb-down and a mortified apology.

I know it is deeply upsetting to think that people like that are out there (and have enough political power to make UKIP a viable political party, the horror). The only consolation I can offer is to be grateful you are you and not that scared, mad, hate-filled and powerless-feeling old woman. And to make a conscious effort to connect with the majority of British people who DON'T feel the same as her and who find xenophobia like hers idiotic and intolerable.
posted by stuck on an island at 7:37 AM on December 1, 2014 [20 favorites]

Best answer: And needless to say, none of this is your fault. I think the UK media have a lot to answer for in their manipulative whipping-up of race hate in this country.
posted by stuck on an island at 7:40 AM on December 1, 2014 [8 favorites]

I am Canadian and white and I lived in the States for a few years when I was younger, and when I encountered that flavour of idiot I enjoyed (too much, probably) baiting them a bit, letting them say all sorts of awful things, and then confessing my nationality.

Invariably! "Oh, but I don't mean people like you."

And then you can easily, easily have a laugh at them and tell them they don't really have an issue with "immigration" and don't have any particular insight into politics (etc), but they're just a run-of-the-mill racist, and ha ha, it must be awful to be you, all nasty on the inside and living in fear. Have a lovely day; goodbye. (They mostly just sat there slack-jawed for that part; I think here and there I got a "fuck you" but no further attempt at trying to "make a point.")

They really are a mess on the inside, I think, scared and feeling powerless and angry about that. Happy people with good inner lives are not bigots. She was not a nice upstanding member of society; she just aped the drag for it well. You can feel a bit less awful about it when you contextualize them as pitiable.
posted by kmennie at 7:50 AM on December 1, 2014 [13 favorites]

Eventually I began laughing every time she said something particularly outrageous. It was a choice between laughter and tears – and I did not want to show her any tears. My laughter shut her up, finally, and she spent the rest of the journey reading her newspaper

Go you! You did do something, even if it doesn't feel like it. For various reasons I have been in situations similar to this, and I know what it's like to kick yourself later for all the things you didn't say. I have a couple of stock phrases that I fall back on if I feel I can speak (which isn't always possible) such as a benign "I think we all should just live and let live" for example. Not exactly earth-shattering but it helps me feel that I didn't collude. But actually I think I might borrow the "just laughing at them" strategy as it's a highly effective way of expressing "What you are saying is so ridiculous I'm not even going to engage beyond laughing at it".

Without criticising you, this woman has given you an opportunity to examine some of your own prejudices about "nice, upstanding" people - would you have felt differently if she was obviously of a different class for example? So maybe in order to move on you can think "I handled it as best I could in the moment. My sense of worth isn't dependent on the ill-informed views of strangers. I'm grateful that I've been given a chance to look at some of my own prejudices, and I pity her that she isn't able to do the same". And as a UK citizen can I just say thanks for choosing to live here - many of us are grateful for the contribution to the economy, the cultural diversity, and the gene pool!
posted by billiebee at 7:54 AM on December 1, 2014 [10 favorites]

She was mentally ill, an asshole, or some combination thereof. Normal people understand that ranting unprovoked to strangers on public transit is socially taboo, so they don't do it. Even most racists and xenophobes understand that you don't talk about such things to strangers in public.

Unless she's Celtic, when is she planning to go back to where she came from? If she's of Anglo-Saxon or Norman descent, I've got some bad news for her...
posted by Anne Neville at 7:56 AM on December 1, 2014 [2 favorites]

My laughter shut her up, finally
This is a great way to deal with people like this. Assuming she wasn't making off-color jokes, laughing is a pretty effective rebuttal to rants like this. Rolling your eyes at her, exchanging knowing looks with others, and loudly changing the subject can all help distract you from the craziness.
posted by soelo at 7:57 AM on December 1, 2014 [5 favorites]

Best answer: My favorite saying comes to mind!

Happy People Don't Do Bad Things.

You would not want this woman's obviously troubled inner life. Go hug your wonderful husband. Enjoy your life.
posted by jbenben at 7:57 AM on December 1, 2014 [11 favorites]

kariebookish: "On Friday I was on public transport with a nice 50-something lady with nice hair and a posh accent."

Ignorant assholes in pretty wrapping paper are still ignorant assholes. This sort is particularly unnerving, though, since it seems like people who are presumably reasonably well-educated and worldly shouldn't be so terrifyingly ignorant. But, bad news, some ignorant assholes manage to move through the world in a bubble of privilege where they can be smug, ignorant assholes and nobody ever calls them out on it.

kariebookish: "How do I move on? And how do I deal with situations like this in the future?"

I think you're doing the right thing by telling the story ... a lot of the time telling an ugly story like this several times to sympathetic listeners can bleed the poison out of it. Like popping a pimple.

On occasion I've said to people engaged in this sort of behavior, "Excuse me, you're being extremely rude and the rest of us would prefer not to be subjected to your noisy ignorance. Please stop talking about $GROUP." But be forewarned it's gonna start a fight, because telling her she's a rude racist in front of a bunch of other people is going to SUPER PISS HER OFF. Sometimes the satisfaction of having told someone they're a rude racist is worth the fall-out, though. Also good: "Ma'am, there are children on this bus, and I don't really think the attitudes you're expressing are appropriate for children to overhear. Please stop." (It takes them a little longer to work through that one so they don't always immediately start shouting at you.)

If you're feeling sassy, sometimes I've said, "Excuse me, you do realize you're using your out-loud voice, right? Oh, because people usually keep those sorts of offensive opinions to themselves and don't broadcast them in polite company."

A firm, "WILL you shut up?" may at least shut her up although it lacks the satisfaction of pointing out she's an ass. She might think you just don't like noisy people on public transit.
posted by Eyebrows McGee at 8:02 AM on December 1, 2014 [6 favorites]

Best answer: As an Australian living in the US I "pass" as white middle class American until I open my mouth, the amount or random racist shit I hear added to the general OMG all immigrants are illegal & coming here to take our jerbs (jobs).

Hell my FIL, college educated with a doctorate will say this stuff to my face forgetting I'm an immigrant (or maybe not he could just be a prick). It sucks. I've tried explaining about how the tax dollars they pay but don't collect services for help various economies, I've tried explaining how food prices would shoot up etc they don't care.

I get the same internal rage/fear/anger/sadness shaking thing going on and wish I could offer some sort of advice. I tend to walk away & not say anything, figuring I don't care if I offend people I don't respect or want to be friends with, I would love to be able to do something wonderful like in the movies and say some stirring speech that would win the day & make them see the truth, but there is a reason this stuff happens in movies, it doesn't happen in real life.

Nothing we say will change these idiots minds. People with closed narrow little world views like this can't see the world any other way. They are sad little people, with sad little lives in which everyone & everything new & different is the enemy. The way the lady in your example talks about it loudly in public suggests to me mental illness or maybe some sort of dementia and makes her even sadder.

Oh & remember these people are the minority, a small and fading minority, if revenge is your thing pray she lives long healthy life. That she lives long enough to see herself become the minority in a country that is culturally & racially diverse.
posted by wwax at 8:19 AM on December 1, 2014 [2 favorites]

For me, my mental quotation for people like this is the Roosevelt quote " They are unanimous in their hate for me—and I welcome their hatred."

When I see/hear someone ranting like this ... I keep this line in mind and ignore them.

if I am in a particularly upbeat mood, feel safe, and have nothing else to do, I might even smile and laugh at some of the things, knowing that the other person and their bigot ideas will inevitably be dead and forgotten.

The bigots are losing their grasp on this world and they know it ... thats why they drop down to the level of ranting in public places. They are the insecure, frightened ones who can see the world changing right under their noses. Its a false blustery courage that leads to this public ranting.

Hell, the bigot might even live to see their world view destroyed, event by event. Imagine that happening and it will bring a smile to your face.

Nothing frustrates a bigot more than seeing the target of his hatred smiling at the words intended to hurt.
posted by TheLittlePrince at 8:55 AM on December 1, 2014 [4 favorites]

Listen to Stewart Lee talking about the UKIPs and laugh about what nonsense that person was spouting.
posted by EndsOfInvention at 9:23 AM on December 1, 2014 [4 favorites]

she once went to Germany and was shocked by how drivers did not stop for her when she crossed the street

Silly cow probably crossed against the lights.
posted by flabdablet at 9:25 AM on December 1, 2014 [2 favorites]

You know, going off on a rant in public is such an unBritish thing to do - except when drunk, or perhaps, coming home from football - this woman was likely not well in the head. And that's what everybody else in the carriage was probably thinking.

Who knows what was wrong with her, early alzheimers, new medication, unexpected sherry, fighty Polish daughter-in-law? But ime proper British disapproval is more cuttingly applied by tutting, looking away, pursed lips, muttering and snide comments. If these are ever sent your way then perhaps you are being attacked - and you can counter them by challenging out loud.

"hour-long monologue" “What we need is a revolution!” + "a nice upstanding member of society"
See, it was an entirely anomalous situation. It sounds as if you handled it just fine: laughed until she shut up. And also, according to your account, you had definite allies in the carriage.

I don't want to be in here all telling you how you should feel, but just because she has a posh accent doesn't mean she can't be poor and sad and ill. From your description I think this is what I would have assumed. Immaculately turned out, posh accent, female, older and behaving slightly strangely is a combination I have come across associated with mental health issues before now. Now had I been there and she'd started on talking racism about black people I don't know how I would have reacted, but I don't think I would have found it intimidating.

""I am one of those EU immigrants you fear so much. Look at me. I hold two university degrees. I’ve never claimed any benefits. I run my own business."

Thing is, racism isn't justified when it's directed towards people with only basic education and no job. I don't understand why this got you in the way that it did? What are you feeling bad about? You say you have an overwhelming sense of guilt and sadness - perhaps it would be productive to think more about this - perhaps the event triggered some underlying sadness you already have and that would bear some exploration.
posted by glasseyes at 9:38 AM on December 1, 2014 [6 favorites]

On the other hand if you're ever on a bus during the World Cup or whatever it's called now and a bunch of drunk young men start singing '10 German bombers..' get off the bus immediately.
posted by glasseyes at 9:40 AM on December 1, 2014 [2 favorites]

Every minute you spend dwelling on this, you are giving crazy racist bus lady more control over your life. The next time you start talking back to her in your head just remind yourself that while you can’t control her speech in public, you can control her speech in your mind, count to 10 and move onto something else.
posted by edbles at 9:51 AM on December 1, 2014 [3 favorites]

Eventually I began laughing every time she said something particularly outrageous. It was a choice between laughter and tears – and I did not want to show her any tears. My laughter shut her up, finally, and she spent the rest of the journey reading her newspaper.

This is a success story. You did phenomenally well.
posted by Bentobox Humperdinck at 10:08 AM on December 1, 2014 [9 favorites]

Best answer: "Normal people understand that ranting unprovoked to strangers on public transit is socially taboo, so they don't do it. Even most racists and xenophobes understand that you don't talk about such things to strangers in public."

Sadly, this isn't really the case in the UK at the minute :-( Often they are ranting at strangers knowing they will be overheard by ethnic minority passengers on the bus/train.

You did so well considering it was your first encounter with it, and that you were a target of it (even though she didn't know you were!). I get the same shaking anger, and learning how you feel comfortable responding to it is a long drawn-out process. You will feel stronger next time you hear it, and might feel comfortable directly and verbally challenging it, but anything to make her realise other people don't share her bigoted views is good. And yeah, I stood outside a UKIP conference once, and everyone who went in was well-presented and well-spoken. Sad that people who have obviously had privilege in their own lives can't be generous to others. It is sometimes more upsetting than your stereotypical racist thug, because at least then you can think about how their own lack of education/opportunity may have contributed to it..
posted by Dorothea_in_Rome at 10:40 AM on December 1, 2014 [1 favorite]

I keep justifying to myself why I am not bad despite being an immigrant.

See, you're a good immigrant, you're not like all those immigrants over there [waves airily]. My partner has been repeatedly asked whether I'm a citizen or an "illegal", because for born-in-the-USAians, those are often the only two options.

British politics is toxic right now, because the media enables the pack of loons and swindlers that are UKIP and provides a platform from which xenophobes can launch into their screeds. Your particular loon was Mrs Brigadier Cheesebottle (Ret.) who probably sends letters in green ink to the Telegraph. You don't need to have a response on hand, though appropriately British ways to react include raised eyebrows, laughter (yay you) and "old people these days, no manners, I blame the parents."
posted by holgate at 10:41 AM on December 1, 2014 [2 favorites]

I'm sorry you had to experience this episode. My stepfather does this all the time. He is a naturalized Brit, born in Denmark, but living in England. And to be honest, I get a lot of fun out of reminding him that he is an immigrant and that our family is a lively mix of people from all over the globe.
But I suspect early dementia or some other mental health issue. Ranting loudly in public places is not normal.

That said, xenophobia is growing across Europe, and it is scary. I heard a radio show the other day where an elderly couple expressed the most grotesque prejudices. They also claimed that 90 % of the people they know agree with them, but vote differently because they are "scared of the man". I believe they are completely wrong and that 90% of their friends disagree with their crazy paranoia but choose to remain silent, because why bother… And in that sense you are right - maybe we should react. Not so much in public transportation, because crazy ladies, but at social gatherings, at our kid's school, at work etc.
posted by mumimor at 11:16 AM on December 1, 2014

She was rude, and wrong, and ultimately people like that aren't your job to deal with. Speaking as a Scottish guy living and working elsewhere and hearing similar bullshit, fuck those people, in my country and everywhere else. You can dismiss them as being ignorant and misinformed, or as being stupid and hateful, but dismiss them you must if you want to live life with any degree of pleasure.

I feel strongly about this because you've been in Scotland roughly as long as I've been out. Thank you for coming, doing business, paying taxes, and generally contributing. One thing that helps me where I am is remembering that for every nationalist idiot, I encounter many more friendly, curious, and helpful people. Sure, I could have avoided the problem entirely by staying where I was born, but then I wouldn't have met my spouse, who is fantastic, and who will get a warm welcome from more-or-less everyone when we visit the UK in 3 weeks.

tl;dr Ignore the ignorant! They are most definitely not worth it.
posted by Wrinkled Stumpskin at 12:54 PM on December 1, 2014 [1 favorite]

I grew up up white (albeit second-generation-immigrant white) in middle-class Canadian neighbourhoods. Where people were more homogenous, I did feel a sense of difference that troubled me sometimes, but I don't think I felt that I was (or could be) seen as an altogether different category of person (while I know that friends of mine who were other kinds of Others did).

It was only in the UK that I learned that oh yes, there are people who most definitely do see me as basically different, thanks to my long name (and who knows what else, my nose or colouring or - I don't know, don't want to guess). (In work settings, I think my identity as a Canadian superseded my ethnicity - when people met me and could hear me speak before hearing my name, that is - and I think I got a pass in the social settings where it might have an impact because my ex is British. [Most people treated me as an individual; I'm talking of weekends spent in little villages, that sort of thing.] So I heard more than I wanted to about immigrants and foreigners. Not even necessarily negative stuff, always, and not from everyone - but the essentialist idea, common in Europe, that place = race, that having French or Eastern European or whatever background or passport meant that you were a fundamentally different kind of person, was itself a shock, even more so when coupled with the kinds of horrible attributions you heard.)

So I understand that hearing these kinds of ideas from someone you'd expect to represent the larger views of the country can be upending, if you've been lucky enough to live in places with less racialized discourses, especially if you've been so lucky as to have been largely treated as part of the dominant group, wherever you have lived so far. It's a rude awakening, for sure. I feel it extended my understanding, if even by a tiny, tiny bit, of something like what some of my friends have experienced all their lives, at home.

Others are right that this woman doesn't speak for the whole of Britain; it's particular demographics that lean to xenophobia (although I do think that the underlying essentialism may be more common, across Europe). Learning more about the reasons why (e.g. digging into a bit of history or sociology or economics) may help you feel less vulnerable.

As far as getting by, don't waste time trying to prove your worth to people who aren't equipped to see it, and spend it instead with people who can.
posted by cotton dress sock at 1:40 PM on December 1, 2014 [1 favorite]

Was this your first serious experience with bigotry and hateful behavior coming from people of your own economic class? It sounds like you are feeling a huge sense of loss and betrayal because you initially identified this woman as someone safe, someone from your tribe, a friendly older aunt figure wearing a "jolly yellow raincoat"-- and instead of affirming that, she rejected you in an incredibly vicious and public way.

Trying to rationalize away this kind of hatefulness by playing respectability politics and brandishing your CV is not going to work. These kinds of people treat bigotry like a treasured personal value and will go through any kinds of logical and political contortions to be able to hold on to their ability to demonize and hate others. The other, poorer, less educated, less white immigrants don't deserve this kind of treatment either. You are not a bad immigrant; you are not bad; you in no way deserved the kind of bullying you were subjected to; you just witnessed the hideous underbelly of the culture that brought the world the empire on which the sun never sets. The other man on the train, the one who noticed your distress and tried to ally with you, is another, better facet of the UK.

But unfortunately, yeah, wealthy respectable people are often huge fucking racists. Little Old Lady Racism is terrible, it feels like some kind of maternal/grandmotherly rejection and is tough not to internalize or be beaten down by if you haven't encountered it before. If it helps, there's an iconic scene from Blazing Saddles about this exact kind of encounter and how shocking it can be: SLYT, nsfw, racist slurs. I'm sorry this happened to you; it was not your fault, and you dealt with it well.
posted by moonlight on vermont at 5:10 PM on December 1, 2014 [3 favorites]

I think that laughing at her until she shut up was a fantastic response. Be proud of yourself because you are awesome.
posted by 5_13_23_42_69_666 at 5:32 PM on December 1, 2014 [4 favorites]

Suggest she get help for her anger/hostility issues. You will have verbalized what everyone around her was thinking anyway: that she's nuts.
posted by beckster at 4:08 AM on December 2, 2014

Best answer: What struck me about this was not the mentally ill woman ranting on the bus, but the nice man who made a point of asking you about what you were knitting. It seems a very British way of rejecting the thoughts she was saying and supporting you without actually confronting her about it.
posted by corb at 4:05 PM on December 2, 2014 [5 favorites]

I'm a white Jewish US-ian immigrant to the UK, and it is getting scary here, even as a 'good' immigrant. My own (white British) mother-in-law shocked me when she threatened to vote UKIP at the next election. I think you did great by laughing at your ranting woman, and I'm going to try to copy you next time it happens to me.

It's unsettling though. The good thing I guess is it helps you remember what it must be like more of the time for the 'not good' immigrants, and brown and black people in general.
posted by mgrrl at 12:56 AM on December 3, 2014

The good thing I guess is it helps you remember what it must be like more of the time for the 'not good' immigrants

This not good immigrant British person of diverse heritage wants you to know that while Ukip may be making headway public attitudes have been immeasurably better in the past ten years than ever before; and I remember the times when one might be chased through the street.
posted by glasseyes at 5:22 AM on December 4, 2014

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