Image: Kurt Löwenstein Educational Center International Team from Germany / CC BY
I was heading down the last flight of stairs at the Lyon LRT station in Ottawa. A man stormed around the corner from the fare gates. He wore a leather jacket from a local university and one of those hard hats they give to first-year students.
"Effin' pa**!" (a four-letter racial slur, often misapplied to anyone of South Asian descent) he yelled at someone by the gates. He screamed it over and over, along with other profanities.
He stomped on the escalator, kept cussing. I couldn't stand by and do nothing. So I angled toward him. "Hey man," I said, "that's not cool."
"Yo, it's got nuthin' to do with you. Mind your own business, four-eyes."
If someone's going to throw around racial slurs in public, I'll make it my business.
"Man, why you gotta be like that?" I said. "There's no need."
"You don't have any idea what happened," he yelled. "So just shut up fa****"—(a six-letter homophobic slur)—"four-eyes."
I shook my head. I didn't know what to do. A few seconds passed, then I said: "It's too bad you gotta put down others to feel better about yourself."
He kept yelling "fa**** four-eyes" as the escalator carried him higher.
My heart thumped. I was back in grade school when kids made fun of my glasses. I considered racing up the escalator to give him a piece of my mind, maybe even my fist, but that wouldn't solve anything. Not worth it.
Fa**** four-eyes. That's my thanks for trying to do the right thing. I shook my head, walked away.
I sat on the train and wondered what went on in the young man's head. It's true, I didn't know what had happened before. Someone might have insulted him badly, or treated him unfairly. It's quite possible he was just being a dick.
Although I had approached him calmly, he was on fire. What he said wasn't cool, but perhaps I could have instead said something like, "Yo, man, you okay?"
He still might have bit my head off, but maybe he wouldn't have felt as challenged. I might have had a chance to open a dialogue. If he calmed down, then maybe I could have addressed the racial slurs in a more effective way.
In hindsight, my comment to him, about putting down others to feel better about himself, was hypocritical. Deep down, I meant to insult him because he had insulted me. I put him down so I could feel better about myself. Shame on me.
Conflict is often necessary and healthy. Racism, homophobia and insults are not.
Racism and homophobia are alive and well in my city. So are love and tolerance. We're all capable of great love and hate. Choose wisely.