Last week, I intervened when a white male was verbally harassing a Muslim man in a coffee shop. I grew up in a bi-racial home, I lived in Texas for eight years and I have never witnessed such overt prejudice in my life.
I heard the bully loudly spouting some offensive nonsense before I realized that his seemingly generalized comments had a specific target. When he turned from issuing general statements to asking direct questions of someone, that’s when I first noticed the Muslim man.
At first, the bully was complaining about “people praying in public.” Being a Christian myself, I found this troubling. As he went on, his volume increased and he seemed to be referring to some specific experience. My initial thought was perhaps some Christians had been or were presently praying in the coffee shop. I know that my fellow Christians meet at coffee shops and sometimes we pray for one another closing our eyes and bowing our heads slightly. Yet, a quick scan of the shop and I saw no one praying.
That’s when the bully started asking questions of a man working at his laptop.
“Hey, why do you pray in public? Don’t you have a mosque or somewhere else you can pray? Hey, I’m asking you a question.” The bully had stood up and his tone of voice and mannerisms were threatening. If it weren’t 7 o’clock in the morning, I would have assumed the man was a loud-mouthed drunk — maybe he was.
The man at the laptop was quite rightly ignoring him.
The bully’s frustration seemed to be increased by being ignored. So, he persisted and began to tell the man that his praying in public was offensive to him. He insisted that the man pray in private or at a mosque.
That’s when I spoke up. On several grounds, I saw it as my duty to intervene. I saw it as my duty to speak up as a Christian, as a Canadian, and as a “white” man.
“Hey,” I said. “People can pray where ever they want.” I succeeded in getting the bully’s attention. Like poking a predator to distract him from his prey.
In a slightly less aggressive tone but still aggressive, the bully told me that he was offended by this man praying in public.
“But in this country he can pray whenever and wherever he wants. And he is not even praying at the moment as far as I can see.” I said.
“No. But I’ve seen him praying here before. He prays here everyday at two o’clock.”
“Well, he is welcome to do so. If he were disrupting business, then the employees would address the situation. Besides people meet in coffee shops and other places of business to pray all the time. In fact, I was just praying. If his activities were a problem, then he might be asked to leave.”
“Well, I was just asking him a question and he refused to answer.”
“You may have been asking a question but the tone in which you were asking the question sounded very aggressive.”
“I was just talking to him like we’re talking now. I like to talk to people.” He said. And, indeed, his tone was becoming more civil but still had an edge to it.
“I’m sure if you asked him about his beliefs and practices then that gentleman would be more than happy to tell you about himself and his traditions but that is not the tone in which you approached him which is why I spoke up.”
“Well, you should know that he prays here everyday at two and that it makes people uncomfortable and it offends me.”
“If you believe it is disrupting business, then you should talk to the manager not to this customer. If they feel this man’s activities are disruptive, then they are within their rights to ask him to refrain from doing them or to leave.”
“I’ll do that.”
“Good. Have a good day.” I returned to my work and the bully sat back down with his friend who had remained silent the whole time. Of course, the above is a summary of the conversation and I skipped over a few tangential moments that further revealed the depths of his prejudices and his “whiteness.”
They bully presented himself as the victim, the offended party. Bu the only offensive activity that I witnessed was the activity of the bully himself. Moreover, I was quite certain that if anyone was going to be asked to leave it would be the bully not the man sitting quietly at his laptop. Following my own advice, I told the barista’s what had happened. They were familiar with the bully but they had not really noticed what had transpired. I suspect that they had learned to tune out this particular patron and his obnoxious behaviour.
Yet, a bully like this man is very likely to interpret the silence of others as tacit agreement. Moreover, it sends a similar message to his victims. I would also argue that white Christian men are especially obligated to speak up and speak out in situations like this one. Victims of racism and prejudice ought not to be further burdened by having to explain racism, prejudice, and whiteness to perpetrators like this bully.
In this instance, the situation was diffused. The bully was noticeably quieter and spoke in very subdued tones with his friend.
Later, I introduced myself to the Muslim man. So, it turns out that Mohammed (not his real name) recently arrived in Canada on a student visa. Like many students, he was doing his schoolwork on his laptop at a coffeshop. Yet, he because of the colour of his skin and his traditions he became the victim of prejudice and bullying.
Mohammed is a soft spoken man who was physically bigger than the bully. After a few minutes of conversation, I got the impression that he was a gentle spirit. Being new to Canada, Mohammed was not sure what he could do in this or a similar situation. I explained to him that since he was in a place of business that the best thing to do would be to speak to the staff. The staff could ask the bully to leave and if he refused, they could call the police.
I did not know what Mohammed’s experience with or perception of police might be so I assured him that in a similar situation it would be the bully not Mohammed who would be asked to leave.
He asked me if he was allowed to pray here. I explained that so long as he was not being disruptive then it should not be a problem. I wanted him to be assured that the bully did not represent all Canadians or all white people. Mohammed’s ESL teacher (another white man) had arrived and Mohammed told him what had happened. He too assured Mohammed that he had done nothing wrong. Mohammed and I exchanged e-mails and I learned how to say, “ma’ salaam.”
Go with peace.