As I was hurrying from the train platform to the station exit, an unexpected tug on my arm forced me to stop. I looked down to see a little blond kid about seven or eights years of age looking up at me. Although his lips were moving, I couldn’t understand what he was saying because ALT-J was blasting through my headphones. In that abrupt moment of interruption, my brain was reminded of India, where it’s impossible to walk through a market or street without a child tugging and begging for money. “India?” my confused brain thought. “But you’re in Germany. Kids don’t beg in Germany.” So naturally, my brain thought the child was lost or needed help finding his parents.
I quickly took my buds out of my ears and asked in German, “I’m sorry I couldn’t hear you; What’s wrong? How can I help you?” He replied in German, “Can I listen to your music?” This non sequitur response surprised me; it was the last thing I had expected to hear, from him or from anyone who might have interrupted my journey through the train station. How many people accost a perfect stranger to ask if they can listen to what the other person is listening to? Not many, I think.
I inquired quizzically, “You want to listen to my music?” making sure that I had understood him. He didn’t respond immediately, so I thought I had indeed misunderstood. I asked him again what he needed and I realized too late that he had just gotten it: my undivided attention.
With my attention fully disengaged from my music and destination and fully on him now, he sprayed a slew of derogatory, racist comments, gestures, and then capped it off with a bunch of unintelligible sounds he assumed to be my mother tongue. It happened all so fast and, because I was so stunned at what was happening, I said nothing. After he realized that I wasn’t saying or reacting to him (I was quite literally in shock and speechless), he turned around to face a small group of boys behind us, probably his gang, who all broke out laughing, making similar unintelligible noises and pointing at me. That’s when I found myself jerked back through time to when I was a little girl, walking home from school or standing in the playground, when a bunch of boys – it’s always a bunch of boys or girls and never just one boy or one girl – would descend upon me and shout racist comments, make similar efforts at languages they didn’t know, or bump into me intending to make me fall over.
In situations like this, especially when I am being harassed, denigrated or victimized because of the color of my skin, strong emotions alway surge to the surface. Angry emotions seem easy to justify against another adult, but a child? Because the perpetrator was a little boy of no more than 10 years of age, and even though he obviously had no reservations or fear about accosting an adult female in a crowded train station, my concern for the boy outweighed my concern for myself. I was so surprised by his young age that I didn’t have time to react – no time to get hurt or to get angry. I was just stunned.
Afterwards, after I had had time to reflect, I became angry. Not at the boy, but at myself.
I became angry at myself for allowing that “lucky” opportunity to pass by without incident. I became angry at myself because, by not reacting or doing anything I have allowed those boys to continue their ignorant rants to others after me. By my inaction and silence, I have given those boys permission to harass and bully others after me – a daughter walking home, a brother going to piano lessons, a father waiting for the bus, a mother going for a walk, a sister going to meet her friends, etc.
It happened to me today, but I will not let it happen again. I will be prepared the next time and seize the opportunity to affect change. I will no longer be silent.
Racist, bully, stupid or all of the above?