Speak Up: Responding to Everyday Bigotry

What Can I Do About A Stranger's Remarks?

'I Was Shocked'

A gay man in Oregon writes about walking down a street the day after a local Gay Pride event. On the sidewalk, he passes a man who tells a female companion, loudly, "There were fags all over the place. I felt like killing them."

A lesbian who at the time was dating a transgender woman shares a similar story of being called "dykes" by someone from across the street. A gay man tells of routinely being called "faggot" while walking down city streets.

A California woman is apartment-hunting with her mother. They are in a restaurant, making friendly conversation with people at another table. Her mother asks which neighborhoods are good for students. The man at the other table says, "Pretty much all of the neighborhoods in town are fine; we try to keep the niggers and Mexicans out of the city limits."

She says, "I was shocked and didn't know what to do. How do you confront a stranger in a restaurant? Or do you? I'll never forget the shock and anger I felt at that moment."

Assess your surroundings. A heated exchange with a stranger can escalate into physical violence; assess the situation before you respond. Is the speaker with a group of people? Is the space deserted? Are you alone? Are children present? Consider such things before responding.

Say nothing. A questioning glance may be an effective and non-confrontational response in a situation in which you feel unsafe speaking directly. Keep moving.

Say something. If you choose to raise the issue, state your beliefs clearly: "I find that language very bigoted. It offends me." Or, "I think it's wrong to stereotype people."

Speak to the proprietor. If the incident happens in a business, leave. But before you walk out, let the managers know why you're leaving: "The man at the table next to mine kept using the N-word. It made me lose my appetite. Perhaps you should speak to him so you don't lose more business."

Report the incident to an advocacy group. Local advocacy groups, like gay and lesbian centers and local minority alliances, often keep check on the pulse of a community. Call them; let them know what you heard, when and where. They may see patterns you don't and can work with local government to address ongoing concerns.