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Would you stand up, and when?

By Darrell McKlaren

Last night on the train on my journey home from work I witnessed an example of racist and sexist bullying mixed with a bit of white privilege. To my disgust, none of the dozen or so fellow travellers in the carriage called it out for what it was. To my shame, neither did I.

This has prompted me to share this account as I feel that at the time I was right not to get involved, but I still feel that I could have, and should have, done more to help the young Indigenous girl involved.

After a 13-hour shift I was travelling home on the 10pm train to Bundamba (in Ipswich, Queensland). The Queensland Maroons had just won the decider in the State of Origin series so the train had a few people that were livelier than the usual crowd at this time. Being somewhat disillusioned with the football I was ignoring them and reading on my phone. I had noticed a young Indigenous girl, who may or may not have had a few too many drinks walking up and down the aisle in the carriage but thought nothing of it. Several stops passed and my attention was roused by a loud voice proclaiming that he was an angry man. It took me a couple of minutes to realise that this man was abusing the Aboriginal girl for waking him up. I did not see or hear that so I will reserve judgement on that but I believe he took it too far when he banished her to the far end of the carriage and threatened to bash her if she dared to move. The carriage had gone silent at this point while this drama played out and the young girl had moved to the end of the carriage as directed. He was not a small man so she was right to move away.

Content that he had displayed to the rest of us late night travellers that a large angry man was something that young Aboriginal girls should not upset, he put his feet up in a smug and self-satisfied manner and attempted to go back to sleep. At this point I thought that was the end of the matter so I continued reading on my phone.

Emboldened by the realization that they were not alone in their poor opinion of young Aboriginal girls who may or may not have had a few too many drinks, another couple sitting opposite started to voice some loud, aggressive and derogatory comments between themselves but obviously intended for the ears of this young girl. She appeared to be somewhat distressed and probably felt threatened by this and got up from her seat and began pacing up and down the aisle while waiting to arrive at her station. The loud bogan couple then stood up and waited by the door that the young girl had been sitting near and continued with their derogatory remarks. This was obviously meant to intimidate her, which it did, as she returned to her seat and did not get off the train at the next station with the bogans.

Conflicted within myself as to whether I should approach her and offer some support I sat and observed her behaviour with the intention of offering a safe lift home if she was still on the train when I reached my station. Somehow it doesn’t feel quite right for a middle-aged white man to be offering to drive home young girls regardless of the situation. She got off two stops later and the rest of the trip was uneventful. I remember thinking to myself at the time, this is not the Australia I grew up in. But actually, it is. We had racist and sexist bullies then, we still have them now.

This morning I can’t help but feel I should have spoken up or at least offered her a safe ride home. Would you have, and at what point?

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  1. townsvilleblog

    You should be ashamed of yourself, you should have given up your seat for the young indigenous lady, apart from simply being chivalrous her people have been here for between 50-60 thousand years and her culture should be applauded and we should be grateful to share this continent with her and members of her family, in fact her’s is the only truly Australian culture and should be respected. If it were me I would have stood for her, but then I wouldn’t be going home from work at 10:00pm on the Townsville train service because two things, firstly I wouldn’t be giving my employer my free time, and secondly those of us outside the S-E Corner do not get train services, though we do get to pay the same amount of tax that you pay. Bloody unfair isn’t it!

  2. Darrell McKlaren

    yeah mate I am ashamed of myself but I think you might have missed the point. I was referring to engaging in a conflict which possibly would have resulted in physical violence without knowing the complete circumstances. My point was would you have spoken up regarding the pack mentality of the other commuters in the train or would you have minded your own business as I did. As for coming home at 10pm, I had just finished a 13 hour shift. No mention of donating time to my employer. Some of us don’t get to pick and choose when we work. Thanks for the comment.

  3. Michael Taylor

    You should be ashamed of yourself, you should have given up your seat for the young indigenous lady,

    Don’t you think that’s a bit harsh?

    Perhaps the person who was being aggressive towards her should be ashamed of himself, as should the bogan couple.

    Darrell and the other passengers (who I suppose you think should be ashamed of themselves, too) were not the aggressors.

    The other passengers may not have given the incident any thought. Darrell has. And he felt enough about it that he wrote this piece … and wasn’t afraid to put his name to it.

    I think Darrell deserves an apology from you.

  4. fa

    Darrell McLaren, I think you know what the right thing to do would be in this situation. Your question “Would you [have intervened] and at what point?” seems to be asking for validation that you did the right thing by looking the other way. Unfortunately you won’t be receiving that validation from me. What could have been done is to quietly speak to the girl, ask if she was alright, provide assistance in whatever form the girl was comfortable with, including accompany her to another carriage and sitting with her during her journey. I would have looked around the carriage for sympathetic faces and enlisted help in accompanying the girl to another carriage, safety in numbers. In an Australia where on average one woman every single week is being violently murdered we all have a responsibility to intervene and assist – in a non-threatening, non-violent manner – when we see this type of victimisation and abuse. I hope next time you won’t look the other way.

  5. helvityni

    Envious, racist white folk have been busy in Petersham (Sydney), spreading ugly pamphlets full hatred towards Yassmin Abdel-Magied and Waleed Ali…Some Lady Shock Jock has been doing the same on talk back radio…a Lady Larrikin…not !

    The Petersham pamphlets also included Sarah Hanson -Young in hate ‘mail’ ; put her down, a mere woman , and a supporter of asylum seekers. We can’t have that….

    Sadly still a racist country, no Captain’s call made to support these three wonderful people…

  6. fa

    I also agree that the first comment is harsh. I think what is key in these types of situations is not to confront the abuser but to quietly offer support to the victim. Moving away at the first possible opportunity. Enlisting help from other sympathetic passengers. Remaining together which creates an environment of safety. Contacting the guard or the driver of the train via the intercom or walking to the guard’s carriage if necessary. Even dialling 000 and reporting the matter to Police, especially where a threat to harm has been made, as in this case. Don’t forget to provide the carriage number to Police, who can precisely pinpoint your location and meet the train at approaching train stations. There is a lot that can be done to help that doesn’t include challenging the aggressor, which I would not recommend under any circumstances. The point is to support the victim and to remove the victim from the vicinity to a safe place where no harm can come to her/him, whatever the case may be.

  7. fa

    PS Don’t feel ashamed. Clearly you are questioning your choice today, so you are a man of conscience. Let that be your guide. I would not let your gender prevent you from offering assistance based on how it could be perceived by others. The important thing is ensuring that no harm comes to another human being.

  8. Keitha Granville

    You were in a possibly dangerous situation – had you admonished the guy, he may have had support and encouragement from others to be aggressive to you.
    However I think I would have given up my seat to her, and quietly ensured she was ok. Strangely, people who might have taken to the dumbos side would prob now relate to you and offered extra support. Many many people are fence sitters and will come down on whichever side is winning. Pathetic isn;t it.

  9. Peter F

    It easy from our distance to give you advice. I believe that you were wise not to put yourself forward as a target. Offering your seat would have been a brave stance, and I wonder how many others would have seen that as a possibility.

  10. @RosemaryJ36

    I find it really sad that this situation arose in the first place. Clearly, in terms of acceptance of others, much more needs to be done early in people’s lives to counter the influences of prejudice.

  11. Ross

    It’s always very difficult to determine when it’s safe to step in or not… I’ve previously cupped my hands and shouted “Booooo!” or something similar when I don’t feel entirely safe, then pretended innocence when the perpetrator/s turn around. I’ve often stepped in to stop bullying between children, and several times against people so drunk I was sure they couldn’t do me any harm. But it’s scary, you’re never sure if you’re safe or not and each time I’ve stood up to defend someone against non-children I’ve been left shaking. I honestly feel your pain at this moral dilemma.

  12. A L

    Many years ago I failed to help someone being publicly humiliated like this. I was so shocked and spent so much time debating with myself about what to do that in the end I did nothing. The shame and disgust I felt after that are as fresh today as they were then. I resolved that I would never again allow someone to endure an experience like that without doing something to help. I have since been in a chillingly similar situation to yours in Perth. I chatted with an indigenous woman being harassed and belittled by some people on a train. At night trains in Perth are patrolled by security guards so I wasn’t as concerned about physical safety. I asked if she was OK and just tried to be a buffer. The racist arseholes lost interest and all parties eventually departed. She thanked me, which was mortifying because I didn’t really do anything. I felt more capable, though and as time goes on and things like this occasionally happen it’s become easier. Don’t beat yourself up – use this experience to plan how you will intervene next time so you aren’t paralysed with doubt. And find a way to help someone today or tomorrow so you can start forgiving yourself. You can’t go back in time and help that girl but you can help someone else.

  13. Susan

    I would have sat next to her or invited her to sit with me.

  14. king1394

    Maybe the thing to remember here is that most of us much prefer the quiet life and minding your own business is highly valued by our society. In a situation like the one described, it is possible that the writer could have done something to calm things down but what might have been the consequences of action?

    Had he intervened, a number of scenarios could be possible. He might have drawn the attention of the aggressive drunkard and found himself in a very unpleasant, possibly dangerous place himself. He might have been able to tell the drunkard to settle down and seen him comply. The girl could have been upset that he intervened on her behalf – we don’t know if she knew anybody on the train; the drunkard could have been her uncle, say; no one knows. Intervening could have made things worse for the girl. Perhaps the occupants of the carriage would have been encouraged to take a stand against the bullying led by the writer. One authoritative ‘shut up’ might have been enough. Clearly the ‘bogan couple’ felt encouraged by the drunkard’s behaviour.

    I’m not sure that the writer who describes himself as a middle-aged man could have invited the girl to sit with him, though a woman could do so. In some ways I think the writer did best by being alert and concerned even without taking overt action.

  15. Kathy Heyne

    We all grow up hearing about the flight or fight response, but we’re never told about the third “F”- freeze- and it’s by far the most common. We all like to think we’d stand up and say or do something in situations like you found yourself in, Darrell, but very few of us do. We put our heads down and hope it will stop soon. We’re frightened or shocked – usually both. And unfortunately, our silence condones it. On the positive side, the fact that this happened to you and the young lady means you’re thinking of a strategy you can use next time to intervene and minimise harm, and because you shared it, so am I.

  16. havanaliedown

    It’s difficult without the context of how the dispute began. If I was witnessing the situation, I probably would have eventually become sick of the noisy dispute and said loudly “that’s enough, leave her alone”, but trying not to escalate the situation. So don’t beat yourself up about staying silent, it’s nothing to be ashamed of: we all make decisions that we reason to be the best one at the time, then regret later.

  17. Harquebus

    “In a progressive society, it is often white families that stand in the way of equality and justice. Systemic white supremacy depends, first and foremost, on the white family unit.”
    “Whites are embedded from birth with the sense of common white identity, and this identity conditions them to replicate the white family unit, thus furthering the cycle of white supremacy in America. That is why the white family unit must be destroyed.”

  18. Darrell McKlaren

    Thanks to all for the thoughtful replies. My motive for sharing this story was to start a discussion about public bullying to raise awareness and discuss other people’s strategies for dealing with the situation. I don’t think I was consciously seeking validation for my inaction as suggested although I can see how that could be perceived. I already believe that my inaction was rather cowardly and I am ashamed of myself was for the importance I placed on my own self-preservation when this poor girl really had no options. I have thought quite a lot about this incident since and arrived at the conclusion that I would take some action in the future should I be unfortunate to ever find myself in a similar situation. I’m fairly sure that I would now help someone to move away from the area without engaging the bully. In these days of mobile phones and videos, contact with police or security services is usually in your hand so it is possible to help others to safety without necessarily placing yourself in harm’s way. I’m quite sure I will not see that young girl again but should the opportunity arise I would like to extend my apologies for my inaction. I hope she got home safely.

  19. Michael Fairweather

    Look guys you can all be brave but there was three males involved and to intervene would be asking for trouble , she was only being abused not physically abused, discretion is the better part of valour. I am not racist ,just practical.

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