A woman stood outside the coffeehouse, beating on the window, middle finger into the air, hollering the N-word at me.
I prepared for this day thinking that my friend would arrive at the cafe dressed in a burqa as she had the last time I saw her. I fretted that someone might feel free to let loose their hatred and fear upon her; accost her verbally or physically, especially in light of a recent ban on immigration. I practiced what I would do.
From bystander intervention training, I learned that after making sure of your own safety, direct intervention and distraction were good ways to confront a perpetrator; that one of the easiest methods to accomplish both was to yell loudly, “Stop, you can’t do that!” So, I practiced for this day, repeating that mantra over and over.
To my surprise, my friend arrived at the cafe in jeans and backpack — no hijab or burqa. She’s a newcomer to Bellingham, so over tea, we talked about the beautiful part of this country where we both now lived.
As a person of color, she asked me about life in a small town not known for its diversity. I told her about the cross-burning that happened in 1994, down the road from where I lived on the outskirts of town. Although I’d just relocated from Richmond, Va., the capital of the Confederacy, I had never experienced a cross-burning until here in the Pacific Northwest. How bizarre: a cross set ablaze at a migrant labor camp whose devout Catholic residents thought the flaming cross a high holy symbol, until otherwise informed.
I shared with my friend, whose own local mosque had recently received a hate-filled missive, the history of Chinese laborers chased from our city in 1885 by angry white mobs who feared they were taking jobs; the riots of 1907 when Sikhs and East Asians were forced out; and the long ugly history of the KKK here. I told her how it had shocked me to discover the first monument encountered entering Washington state from Canada was not the “Peace Arch” but a smaller tombstone-shaped memorial to Jefferson Davis, president of the Confederacy, whose capital I thought I had escaped — a monument, thankfully, since removed.
I left my friend pondering the weight of this local history, as I got up to use the restroom. But when I returned, my head whipped around to a woman outside the coffeehouse who beat on the window, shot her middle finger into the air and hollered the N-word at me for all to hear.
But I had prepared for this day. So, I leapt from my seat, did a quick sweep outside, determined it was safe and ran out the door. I yelled loudly, “Stop, you can’t do that!” I saw only her back as she scurried across the street.
The café’s owners called the police, who found the woman and issued her an arrest citation. By the time a police officer came inside the cafe to take a statement from my friend and me, he’d concluded the woman showed signs of mental illness. Then, thumbing through the tiny pages of his notepad, he related how she had fully acknowledged her offense. “Now that Obama is no longer president,” she told him, “there’s nothing wrong with what I did.”
Psychiatrists and psychotherapists have often reported the mentally ill seem uniquely capable of accessing and expressing the zeitgeist absent the normal repressive mechanisms most of us possess; that zeitgeist now more freely admitting bigotry, intolerance and racism with a shrug, “there’s nothing wrong with what I did.”
I’m thankful this woman did not have a weapon. I’m thankful, also, that I had prepared for this day. While not my first encounter with racism, and doubtless not my last, somehow the immediacy of leaping up and yelling, “Stop, you can’t do that,” transformed the narrative of this encounter from victimization to empowerment for me.
As I watched this woman slink across the street, the words of W.B. Yeats came to mind. “The blood-dimmed tide is loosed,” he warned in The Second Coming, “… And what rough beast, its hour come round at last, Slouches toward Bethlehem to be born?”