EDITOR’S NOTE: Beyond Bystanders

By on February 7, 2017

New York City subway passengers break out their Purel on Saturday to remove Nazi graffiti. (Photo: Facebook)

JACKSON HOLE, WY – On Saturday a group of strangers found themselves peering quietly at one another on a New York City subway car—surely a common scenario for many of them. Except on this day they were sitting on a subway with swastikas scrawled on every advertisement, every window. Above one swastika read the words, “Jews belong in an oven.”

In a Facebook post that went viral, Gregory Locke, a 27-year-old Manhattan attorney, recounted what happened next:

“The train was silent as everyone stared at each other, uncomfortable and unsure what to do. One guy got up and said, ‘Hand sanitizer gets rid of Sharpie. We need alcohol.’ He found some tissues and got to work.  I’ve never seen so many people simultaneously reach into their bags and pockets looking for tissues and Purel. Within about two minutes, all the Nazi symbolism was gone.”

All it took was one person and passengers wasted no time springing into action.

As hate crimes spike across the U.S. and people are emboldened to propagate their prejudices in public spaces and on social media, no one can assume the role of bystander anymore; even if it creates rifts in friendships or mines moments of misery with family members, even if it incites uncomfortable situations with strangers.

Nine years ago, while living in my first (and last) Jackson skid pad, one of my roommates’ buddies used the n-word in front of me. I was rattled to hear this word uttered with such brazen nonchalance. What kind of place had I moved to? And how could this person assume I shared his prejudice?

I decided he would have to share my discomfort, so I fibbed. I told him I happened to have African Americans in my family, that I wasn’t OK with someone using a racial slur in my home.

A heavy silence swallowed the room. Dumbfounded, he dropped his head for a moment and then apologized before I confessed it was an alternative fact.

But what ensued next was honest dialogue. He said he didn’t know any black people. It was just a word to him, something that, in culturally vacuous Wyoming, he hadn’t really thought much about.

I probably didn’t convince him to wipe the word from his lexicon, but at least, and perhaps for the first time in his life, he engaged in discussion about the pain, the hate, the history attached to something that is so much more than a word.

While it’s difficult to imagine a vile display like what New Yorkers saw this weekend scrawled on, say, the inside of a START bus, there are plenty of opportunities right here in Jackson Hole to be that one person. To condemn incendiary language when you hear it, or to support people who feel threatened or marginalized. Volunteer in ESL classrooms or with children and adults at the Teton Literacy Center, talk with your Latino neighbors, some who are fearful for their futures. Let them know that you support them.

Don’t be resigned to what one passenger on that New York City subway car concluded: “I guess this is Trump’s America.”

To which the young attorney replied, “No sir, it’s not. Not tonight and not ever. Not as long as stubborn New Yorkers have anything to say about it.”

I reckon Jacksonites have something to say about it too. PJH

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About Robyn Vincent

Robyn is the editor of Jackson Hole Snowboarder Magazine and former editor of Planet Jackson Hole. When she's not sweating deadlines, she likes to travel the world with her notebook and camera in hand. Follow her on Twitter @TheNomadicHeart

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