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Yesterday afternoon, I was minding my own business, talking with someone on the way to the bus stop, when some poisonous racism reached my ears.

My companion and I were passing people I read as a young South Asian man, talking on his phone, and an older white woman. As we passed, the woman called the man ‘a dirty rat’. He turned away and finished his phone call as I had a quiet conversation about what had just happened with my companion. She left, by which time the young man had moved away from the person who had insulted him and near to me.

I wasn’t quite sure what to do. The woman had frightened me with the strength of her venom, and I didn’t want to draw further negative attention to the man. I had been sitting on a bench, so I stood up and stood next to him.

‘Mate, are you all right?’ I asked. The “mate” was deliberate: in a context of recent widespread violence against South Asian men, I was trying to assert myself as a part of what is the routinely harsh and impenetrable force of Australian cultural solidarity who was not quite so unfriendly. I’m not sure if that makes sense, and I’m not sure of the extent to which aligning the both of us with that force was particularly wise or helpful, but he seemed to think that I was being nice. Maybe I’m overthinking it.

‘Yeah, I’m all right.’

‘That woman was really horrible,’ I said. We both looked back at her.

‘It happens sometimes,’ he said, resigned. ‘She was just stupid.’ I didn’t catch the rest of what he said – traffic, you know, we were waiting for a bus, after all.

We stood in companionable silence for a bit, craning back at the woman who’d been racist from time to time, until his bus came, and we parted.

Is that the best I could have done? I don’t know. I don’t think so. I am having daydreams of charging up to her and telling her that what she did was not okay. But, well, I hadn’t confronted her with good reason. I was scared of her, and I didn’t think she was open to, or even capable of, listening to what I would have had to say. And, at the end of the day, it wasn’t about her, or even my response. It was about the young man on the phone.

Sometimes confronting someone can be dangerous and self-righteous, about you more than what you’re trying to accomplish. I don’t think anything I could have done with her would have been effective, but I could do something for him.

The aftermath of the racist comment might not have stopped that woman from doing the same again in future, but it froze her out and recentred the person who should have been centred. He was supported. I think that what an emphasis on “calling people out” misses is that the point of it should be to advocate the interests of whoever has been wronged. And, I hope, that this very thing is that happened here.

Not to mention I’ve talked to the person with whom I was walking to the bus stop since, and it looks like there may be a few more layers at hand…

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