I just returned from Strasbourg, where a man screamed racial abuse at me in public and everybody looked on silently

If you ever find yourself in the same situation as those bystanders, this is what it is best to do

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The Independent Online

I was at Strasbourg train station a few days ago when a man approached me and started asking questions in French. His tone seemed aggressive so I politely told him I didn’t understand what he was saying, apologised and started to walk away. It seemed like a relatively normal exchange and, although I was slightly surprised by his tone, I didn’t think much of it. 

He then proceeded to follow me into a shop and started shouting at the top of his voice. Despite the fact that I didn’t speak the language, I could tell from his tone, his snarled lip and the venom with which he spat his words out that he was hurling abuse. I asked the man next to me if he could translate and in no uncertain terms he told me “horrible comments” were being made about my religion and the colour of my skin, and that the man was saying I was to blame for many of the ills of the world.

I was shocked and wasn’t entirely sure how to respond. Do I ignore him? Do I apologise? Do I shout back? I was hit by so many conflicting emotions and in the end chose to do none of those things. Instead, as this man stood a few metres away screaming at me, I just listened.

I listened to everything he had to say without saying a word. I thought maybe he had a bad day, maybe someone had wronged him, maybe he was going through a very difficult period – whatever it was, he was venting all his anger at me. Why was I legitimising it by standing there and allowing him to continue? Because that’s what you do. You try and justify why someone could possibly be so vile because it simply doesn’t make sense. I hadn’t done anything to deserve this, so there had to be a reason why this was happening. But there was no reason, and there never is an excuse.

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Weirdly, it wasn’t his words or actions that had the biggest impact on me. What really got to me were the reactions of the 20 or so people in the shop. No one moved an inch, no one said a word. Everyone stopped what they were doing and just stared at me for half an hour while a man filled with hatred continued his tirade of abuse.

If I made eye contact with anyone, they would awkwardly look away or offer a wry smile, but beyond that no one did a thing. I had never felt so uncomfortable in my life and as everyone kept looking at me all I could think was that maybe those around me just agreed with what he was saying.

I felt incredibly anxious and wasn’t entirely sure how to get myself out of the situation but knew that I wanted to get as far away as possible. I had never felt so small in my life – but as I plucked up the courage to walk past the man and leave the shop, something happened that almost instantly made me feel a bit better. A middle-aged woman approached me and in the sincerest way possible simply smiled and told me to “have a nice day”. Those few words made a world of difference and I instantly felt like I wasn’t alone.

Solidarity goes a long way and knowing that someone is on your side can really help. I appreciate that in these sorts of situations it can be scary to stand up to someone, and I wouldn’t expect anyone to ever put themselves in harm’s way, but simply showing the victim you are on their side, showing them you don’t agree either by sitting beside them so they feel safe, or just by telling them to have a nice day, you have done enough.

That woman’s words really helped me – so if you ever find yourself in a similar situation, standing in silence and watching an incident like that unfold while you disapprovingly look on simply isn’t good enough. Be there for the person who is being subjected to abuse and let them know they aren’t alone. Because that’s how you make a small but meaningful difference.