Years ago, I watched the film A Time to Kill, a 1996 film about racism in America. A young black girl is beaten and raped by two white boys, the father becomes enraged and kills them. The defence lawyer has the task to defend him and proving to the jury that he should not be jailed for this crime. His summation at the end has stayed with me ever since:
Fast forward to 2015 in England, and I read an account of a white man acting aggressively towards a black woman on a public train during normal hours, and was only stopped when he tried to physically harm her. Siana Bangura responded to the man in kind, and was being encouraged by fellow passengers to calm down and pull back. According to her account – and I have no reason to disbelieve this – the fellow passengers weren’t attempting to stop the white man from his behaviour, but attempting to control hers in the situation.
I’ve been lucky in that I personally have faced very little overt racism. I’ve certainly never been overtly attacked or been a direct recipient of discriminatory or racist behaviour. It may have happened, and if it has it’s most likely been covert. It has, however, happened to my loved ones, and see and feel the impact of such comments and behaviour towards them.
Conformity is one of the hardest things to understand. Why would people on a train witnessing verbal abuse to a fellow passenger not stand up to the aggressor and prefer to not cause trouble. Is it a British stiff upper lip thing? Is it an attitude of white right? Is it a case of ‘she probably deserved it’? Is it a case of ‘I’m glad he’s saying it, cos I never would’? Is it a case of the media poorly highlighting everyday examples of racism and sexism and not portraying enough positive examples of inclusion and integration? Is it a warped consideration of not disrupting the journey?
I don’t know how I would have reacted if I was on that train. I don’t know why more people don’t stand up to aggressors. I don’t know why people don’t challenge abhorrent comments when they hear them.
It’s easy to conform. There’s a socially accepted way of doing things, and to stand against them is hard. Our personal moments of courage are often those when we’ve stood against the accepted way of doing things and challenged them. Often, that challenge is often met with criticism and intolerance. Why didn’t Siana just leave the train? Why didn’t she just stop shouting back? Why did she have to accuse of her fellow passengers of being complicit? All the wrong questions to be asking in review and in analysis.
The behaviour of the aggressor was only challenged when he tried to physically hurt Siana. Everything else before was accepted and unchallenged by the group.
Eventually people stepped in to stop him. Eventually.
Conformity exists in abundance. It gets reinforced when we see behaviour which goes against the norm. The aggressor was clearly in the wrong, but no-one was willing to challenge him openly.
People will criticise Siana for her behaviour. They will say that how she responded was not how a civil person should react.
So, how exactly, does a civil person react in the face of such aggression?
Short of being the Dalai Lama, very few of us would act ‘well’ in such circumstances.
How many will criticise the aggressor and his behaviour? How many will criticise the fellow passengers’ inaction until a line had been crossed? Who was at fault here?
Imagine travelling on a train on your way to do some work. You have plans of how to complete your work well. Someone comes and sits next to you and starts being verbally abusive towards you without provocation. They become more angry towards you and start to shout at you and tell you that you’re worthless and that your people have no right to be here. Imagine that you’re sitting among a crowd of people and they’re all looking, listening and not acting. You feel attacked, you feel victimised and you feel that you’re in the wrong for even being on the train.
Now imagine you’re white.