Critical Dharma for Thinking Minds
by Kate Lyons, originally published in The Guardian
A woman faces sentencing on Friday for racially abusing three women on a bus in October. Simone Joseph called the women “Isis bitches” who had “bombs up their skirts” and told them to “fuck off back to your own country”.
Fellow passengers filmed the attack, which helped to lead to a conviction. But in many cases, when harassment happens it is met with silence from nervous onlookers and there are no repercussions for the attacker.
We asked readers to tell us about abuse they have witnessed in public to understand why people sit by and say nothing, and to give guidance on how people can respond.
During the last year 52,528 hate crimes were reported to the police, more than 80% of them racially motivated. According to Home Office figures, the number of actual incidents is four times that number, the vast majority going unreported.
“It’s a significant and sizeable problem,” says Dr Neil Chakraborti, director of the Leicester Centre for Hate Studies. “Many victims don’t even recognise that they’ve been the victim of a hate crime. They normalise a lot of this behaviour, it happens so repeatedly, so often, it’s a routine part of being different – being called names, being harassed on the street.” Chakraborti says the targets of these attacks are often Muslim.
“I can guarantee you that every single Muslim has either experienced Islamophobia themselves or know somebody close to them who has. That’s how bad the problem is.” said Sufyan Ismail, the founder and CEO of anti-Islamophobic violence organisation Mend. Chakraborti and Ismail both say that Muslim women who wear a veil or headscarf are particularly vulnerable to attack. “The abuse they get is horrific – having their veils ripped off, being spat on,” said Chakraborti. “In the research we did it was clear it’s not just Islamophobic hostility, it’s gendered hostility. It’s appalling.”
People from a wide range of backgrounds told us of instances when they were the victims of abuse on the streets of Britain.
A turban-wearing Sikh said that as he was walking down a main road in York during the day a woman started calling him “bin Laden” and spat at him. A woman described seeing a man hissing at women wearing hijabs as they walked past him. Another said she was pushed off her seat at Euston station by a white family and told to “fuck off back to your own country”. When she objected the man yelled at her: “Look at your skin, you can’t be British.”
Another woman, wearing a burka on a visit to the York railway museum with her husband and son, was abused by another patron who told her: “My daughters are getting scared looking at you wearing this black thing. Why are you guys going around bombing and killing everybody?”
Chakraborti says when a racial or religious attack occurs in a public place, in most cases, sadly witnesses do not speak up for the victim. “I’ve come across cases where people have stepped in, but the vast majority of victims I’ve spoken to have been really sad because people have turned a blind eye and that has exacerbated their sense of isolation,” he said.
This isolation was expressed by Guardian readers who wrote to tell us about their experiences.
Sarah*, from Newcastle, said that though she has been racially abused many times, people who saw the abuse happen rarely intervened, leading her to feel “worthless, like racism is just something I should be used to”. “Only one time has anyone stood up for me and that was at a bus stop when I was 17. A man had called me a ‘nigger’ and spat at me whilst walking past and a white man shouted after him ‘You fucking idiot’. I am very grateful to that stranger, even though I shouldn’t have to feel grateful,” she said.
Leyla Moazzen, 38, said she has was the victim of many instances of racial abuse while growing up in Haverfordwest in Wales. “The worst episode was when I was a teenager. I was verbally abused in a really threatening way by a group of men in the street. I was memorably told: ‘Get back to Afghanistan you fucking Paki.’ I’m half-Welsh and half-Iranian.
“It turns out that lots of adults were watching. They claimed they’d been ready to intervene if it got worse, but that was afterwards and I didn’t know anyone else was around. I felt very vulnerable. I struggled with the injustice of it. I had to stand up for myself and really didn’t feel equipped to do that. I wished someone had said something.”
While silence from passersby often feels to victims as if the public is offering its tacit approval of abuse, many of our respondents said they stayed silent because they did not know what an appropriate response was and felt guilty afterwards for not doing more.
Justin* from London was sitting on the tube next to a Jewish man wearing a kippah (skullcap) when another man began hissing and muttering “Gas, gas, gas”. Justin and the Jewish man objected to what he was saying, but after the man denied it, they did nothing more.
“I was furiously wondering what I could do,” said Justin. “Should I report the incident and if so, to whom? Would there be a physical confrontation? Should I try to take his picture or shout and point him out as the racist he was? I wish I had taken more action. I feel ashamed of being as scared as I was.”
Oscar Tucker, 21 from London, felt guilty for not intervening sooner after a white man shouted “Go back to Africa” to a black women at a tube station. “She jumped, obviously surprised and then told him ‘I’ve never been to Africa.’ He followed her through the tube station shouting various racial abuse. He sounded really angry – briefly I thought he was going to hit her.
“At first, I was kind of rendered useless by shock. Eventually, I quietly asked him to leave her alone. He stared at me intensely for about a second and then said: ‘OK’ and walked off. This response really surprised me. I have to put it down to the fact that I’m a young, white man,” said Tucker, adding: “I feel quite guilty that it took me so long to intervene.”
Ismail said that when abuse occurs, “Sadly most people sit by and accept that’s how life is now. I don’t think we should interpret every occasion of no one saying anything as no one caring. The British are naturally reserved – including myself, including British Muslims – but once in a while there’s a need to come out of our reserve because a situation warrants that intervention.”
Both Chakraborti and Ismail warn that people should be careful when intervening, especially if the person might be violent and their intervention could escalate the situaiton.
“Don’t put yourself in any danger. Witnesses come in different sizes and shapes and you need to be aware of that,” said Chakraborti. “But you’ve got to rely on your moral compass: what can you do? Can you intervene? Tell a bus driver or a guard on the tube? Can you just put your arm around somebody and ask if they’re all right and get them a glass of water? It might sound trivial but just that act of kindness can make someone feel less alone.”
Some of those who intervened after witnessing abuse said they were then personally threatened and were uncertain whether they would get involved again. Notably, these were nearly all women who had confronted abusive men.
Sally*, from Birmingham, said she stepped in when a man began shouting at a Muslim woman, who was travelling with young children, on a bus. After Sally intervened the man became verbally and physically aggressive toward her. Two days later, he followed Sally off the same bus and shouted abuse at her, as well as telling her: “I know where you work now.”
Sally said the incident frightened her so much that she would now think twice before intervening. “The second incident has made me change my work hours in order to avoid him and I now feel vulnerable on buses and out on my own, which I never did before. I can only imagine how the woman with her children must feel.”
Isabel Barnes, 29, from Sheffield, intervened when her partner, who is of Indian descent, was racially abused by a man at a pub. When Isabel stood up to the man he punched her in the face. Isabel and her partner called the police and were assisted by others around them. The aggressor was sent to prison for six months for the assault.
“My partner and I often disagree over this,” she said. “My partner’s view is that people of that mind are not up for an intelligent debate and therefore there is no point in challenging their behaviour. But my gut sends me a different way – that we all have a responsibility to challenge negative behaviours in society. I can’t help but feel that ignoring the behaviour is the same as condoning it.”
One of the most significant things you can do if you witness racial or religious abuse in public is to report it to the police.
A British Transport Police spokesman said: “Any crime or incident of anti-social behaviour which is motivated by racial hatred is particularly abhorrent and British Transport Police is working hard to drive such behaviour from the railway. Only by understanding the true scale and nature of the problem, can we hope to develop lasting solutions that will give all travellers and rail staff an environment as free from hate crime as possible.”
When on public transport, people can report incidents by texting 61016 or by calling 0800 405040, in addition to calling 999 in the cases of emergencies. “What is important for people to know is that we care and we will respond,” said the spokesman.
Chakraborti has outlined ways that organisations can make reporting abuse simplerfor people and adds that if witnesses report what they see and back up the testimony of victims this can have a huge impact.
Recording instances of religious and racial violence can be key for furnishing police with the evidence they need to make an arrest or bring a charge against someone, as in the case of Joseph. So as well as intervening and speaking up for a victim of abuse, you should pull out your phone and record the incident.
An example of how this can be useful was offered by Lucy* who, on a recent train trip, saw a white man tell Middle Eastern passengers that they had destroyed the NHS and to “get back to Syria”. She defended the passengers and reported the incident to station staff and the transport police, who assigned the case to a detective. However, since the CCTV inside the train was broken they were unable to pursue the investigation. “Next time I would record the incident on my mobile phone as evidence, as now I know that this is a vital step towards possible prosecution,” she said.
*Some names have been changed.