A man shouts racial slurs in a Seattle Starbucks. The silence is deafening
So my colleague and I were catching up after not seeing each other for a while.
She’s just accepted a new position as an administrator at the community college up the street from where I work. I wanted to welcome her to the neighborhood and her new job.
We arranged to meet at a Starbucks in between our two institutions on Capitol Hill in Seattle. We talked for maybe 30 or 40 minutes. It’s the kind of innocuous catch-up talk that two college administrators do when we’re trying to figure out what we’ve been up to since we last talked.
Editor's note: This essay contains explicit language. Read the transcript of Dr. Hughes' interview with Bill Radke.
My awareness of the incident, as I later explained it to the police officer who took my statement, started with me realizing that my right hand was wet.
We were in a Starbucks and there was lots of liquid around. My cortical brain told me that most likely someone spilled something. But then, I heard someone behind me say something that sounded like, “fucking nigger bitch.”
My brain needed a new explanation. I turned and realized that a young, white man in his early 20s behind me, neatly dressed with short-cropped hair with a dark-colored backpack, was directing this statement at my colleague.
As I turned to face him, he said, “That’s right, fucking nigger bitch” again. He walked to the door and walked out. The incident didn’t really register with me, even as he walked out.
What had happened? I turned to my colleague and asked if she knew the young man. She had never seen him. He went outside and stood at the window yelling more comments that we could not hear and finally walked away down the street.
As he stood at the window, my brain started to make sense of things. I realized the liquid I felt on my hand was his spit. He had spit at my colleague, as it turned out, twice.
This young man looked like a thousand other young college students I’ve seen over the years. Clean cut, well dressed. He was also visibly angry. He did not present as mentally disturbed or under the influence of any substances. He directed his anger at my colleague, having never met either of us. He saw two African-Americans sitting in a Starbucks and decided that it was OK to assault us.
As my colleague noted, as we waited to file a police report, we both know that we can’t dress ourselves out of the perception of who were are in the dominant society. She and I, dressed in the kind of professional attire anyone would expect a college administrator to be wearing in the middle of a work day, are still targets for hate.
But the young man didn’t see educated college administrators sitting at the table. He saw two black people and, in his twisted sense of the rules of life, our socio-economic status, educational accomplishments or our age required no respect or deference. In fact, he seemed only to see a woman of color whom he could brazenly assault in an open space with others watching.
It reminded me of my childhood growing up in the 1950s and 1960s in an all-white community where my family endured these kinds of threats daily. That was then, right? We all seem to perceive that we’ve changed now. After all, as that thinking goes, we’re in a post-racial world where what really matters is status and access to resources and power.
The access and status that both my colleague and I have obtained didn’t stop this incident. While society has created hate crime laws and has professed an expectation that this kind of behavior shouldn’t be tolerated, clearly for this young man, those weren’t enough discouragements to overcome whatever misogynistic and racial hatred and ignorance fuel him.
And, on reflection a few hours after the incident, more than that young man’s actions were disturbing to me. This was a very public act in a very small space. Everyone at that café heard the incident and many saw it. However, only one patron came up after the incident.
That woman apologized to us, saying that this should never happen to anyone, and she offered to be a witness. Also, the manager came to assist us to clean ourselves and to help file the police report.
Everyone else at the café sat silently or went on with their business. In a truly post-racial world, that would not be how things work.
In a post-racial world, that kind of violation would mobilize every person in that space to actively resist an assault on two people – an assault that happened because of our race and because of the gender of my colleague.
In a post-racial world, there’s no silence. Even if you can’t directly act, you take a stand to support those who are assaulted, like the woman who volunteered to be a witness, or the manager who took action.
That personal action is the only way that we stop gender-based and racially motivated hate crimes. And it’s the only way to ensure that people like this young man get the message that we as a society won’t accept any assault on any person.
My guess is that next time, this young man will be more violent. Unstopped, antisocial behavior like this escalates. And he lives in a world right now where he felt safe taking these actions.
When incidents like this stop, or witnesses involve themselves as actors against such acts, then maybe we’ll be moving toward a post-racial world.
Dr. Bob Hughes has been an associate professor of adult education at Seattle University since 2007. He began as associate dean in 2013. He has taught secondary and college students for over 30 years. This essay was published originally on Dr. Hughes’ blog.
This essay was first published on June 1, 2016.
The Seattle Story Project: First-person reflections published at KUOW.org. These are essays, stories told on stage, photos and zines. To submit a story – or note one you've seen that deserves more notice – contact Isolde Raftery at firstname.lastname@example.org or 206.616.2035.