verbal racist attackRacist Attack at the Mall

The video made the rounds of social media last week and I saw it a few days before Christmas. A woman in a Kentucky mall spies a shopper in line ahead of her taking a few small items that her friend had brought to the cash register and adding them to her purchase.

We don’t know if the shopper at the register had forgotten something and sent her companion back to find the item. We don’t know how long the lady had waited in line.

But I do know I have done the same thing. During a Black Friday trip to JoAnn’s Fabrics, I asked my daughter to wait in line whilst I ran back and checked for one more bolt of fabric. I don’t do this often, but I am guilty of this behavior.

The line was long and tempers short at five in the morning. But no one took us to task, muttered under their breath, or told us to go the F*&@ back to wherever we came from.

The woman in the video said all of these things to the shoppers at the register. She ranted about how her tax dollars probably paid for the lady’s purchases. When she heard the two friends at the register say something in Spanish, the woman’s vitriol increased.

Those Latinas Could Have Been ME

My heart rate increases just writing about this. You see, MY daughters and I regularly spoke Spanish at the time I had one of them stand in line at JoAnn’s. MY daughters consider themselves Latinas—Pedro emigrated from Cuba at the age of three. Because of this, Pedro and I committed to raising our daughters bilingual. We only spoke Spanish at home and often spoke it quietly in public out of habit.

At one point in our lives, MY family had to accept assistance from the WIC (Women with Infants and Children) program—despite the fact that Pedro and I both had college degrees. Moving to a new job in a new state put me at the bottom of the teacher’s salary scale and Pedro stayed home with the girls and went to graduate school. I made $12.00 too much a month to qualify for welfare. I hated grocery shopping, but the milk, cheese, peanut butter, and cereal helped us through a rough time.

No one in the crowd (the person videotaping the incident pans around enough to show all the people) speaks up. The cashier (who appears to be a minority) says something at one point, but the woman doesn’t stop her tirade.

Watching the video made me feel helpless and hopeless. It made me cry. Stories and words that poke at sore spots in my own life do that. Injustice makes me mad—even though as a pasty-white middle-class woman I don’t often experience it. Except for that one time when a co-worker accused me of being prejudiced against Hispanics. I responded with a snort of laughter and asked the man if he knew my last name.

What DOES One Do?

Incidents of injustice often leave me feeling helpless. Do I stand by? Do I speak up? Will saying something escalate the situation? This story from my friend Jill Lynch provides the perfect model for action.

“Years ago when I was a young single mom and I had just started getting food stamps (I was on them for a few years) and I was buying food a man behind me started calling me names. I turned around with my mouth open and stared. He was calling me a whore, worthless, stupid and telling me that I should get a job!

“I started crying quietly because my son started to cry (he was two) because I was upset! The person behind the register didn’t do anything, she just kept her head down.

“A man came over and stood between me my verbal assailant and said to me, ‘Just take care of yourself and your kids and I will walk you to your car when you finish.’ I will forever be grateful to that angel who quietly kept me safe.

“My attacker even started screaming at the man helping me, accusing him of being one of my johns.

“My angel made sure I was safe and was as ok as I was going to be. He played with my son as I paid for my groceries and made him smile. He could’ve gotten into it with my attacker, but instead he made me feel safe. Providing a comforting presence to me was more important than hearing someone stand up for me verbally. I never felt safe again paying with those food stamps.”

Six Actions YOU Can Take to Stop an Attack

1. Say something. I researched the incident further and discovered that the attack lasted longer than the YouTube video. During the unrecorded time, other people quietly admonished the attacker. Obviously, this had no effect on the angry woman or the situation.Six steps to take when you witness someone under a verbal attack.

2. Use your phone. The woman who videotaped part of the incident had the right idea. The footage will make it possible for the mall to identify and ban the woman (her behavior is illegal as per mall guidelines). JC Penny’s also wants to reach out to the women under attack and reimburse them for their purchases.

3. Provide a physical barrier between the attacker and the person(s) under attack. According to Jill Lynch, the man who helped her made her feel safe and thus able to deal with the situation. Of course, if the attacker has escalated to physical violence or you fear for your own safety, call 9-1-1.

4. Calmly make generalized statements. You shouldn’t try to speak for the victim, according to Simply make statements that show support, “I’ve asked a friend at the front of the line to purchase something for me before. We all do it.”

5. Assign tasks. If none of the previous interventions seem to help, it’s time to take specific action. In order to avoid the bystander effect, ask others in the crowd to perform tasks that will help defuse the situation. “Sir, please call 9-1-1 right now and let them know what’s going on.” “Ma’am, can you video tape this? I’m going to stand between those poor women and the lady yelling at them.” “You, run and find a store manager.”

6. Be empathetic towards everyone involved. We don’t know everyone’s story.

6 steps you can take to stop a racist attack or intervene with a berating bully. #eracism Click To Tweet

Whatever You Do, Don’t Just Sit (or Stand) There

The same day I saw the video, Pedro and I went to a movie in Flagstaff. The theatre has assigned seating—when you purchase your ticket, you also select your seat number. I went in first and sat down whilst Pedro answered a phone call in the lobby. About two minutes before the scheduled start time, a Navajo family of four filed into the row in front of me. They looked at the ticket and then at the people sitting in the seats in front of them.

“I think you have our seats,” the father stated quietly.

“You have to sit somewhere else,” the seat sitters replied.

The family glanced at each other helplessly. Finally, one of the children said, “We have assigned seats.”

“No one was here and the movie starts soon,” the seat squatters said.

“Excuse me,” I leaned forward and said to the squatters. “Look at your tickets. All of the tickets have a seat number on it so that people don’t have to get here early to get the seat they want.”

“It’s a new thing,” a disembodied voice nearby chimed in as the lights went out for the first trailer.

The squatters begrudgingly stood up and moved away, muttering under their breath. But they moved.

I gave a mental high-five to the voice that had joined me in insisting on justice. I don’t know if the seat squatters suffered from prejudice, racism, or just garden-variety bully complexes.

But it works. If we all do our part to erase racism, prejudice, and bullying, together we can make the world a better place.

Do your part to stop #racism, #prejudice, and #bullying. Make the world a better place. Click To Tweet


  1. A couple of years ago I was in line at Walmart. A Muslim woman in a hijab was in line ahead of me, and a Native American woman behind. The native woman struck up a conversation and suddenly pointed at the Muslim woman, “Her kind doesn’t belong here. They want to kill us all.”
    I was so stunned I muttered a response, and to this day I regret not firmly speaking up.
    Melissa recently posted…5 Things To Know Before Buying Your First HomeMy Profile

  2. Oh friend, my heart breaks at all the injustices in our world too. I am not going to be silent when I see injustices happening either. Thanks for the helpful suggestions.

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Anita Ojeda

Anita Ojeda juggles writing with teaching high school English and history. When she's not lurking in odd places looking for rare birds, you can find her camping with her kids, adventuring with her husband or mountain biking with her students.

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