Perspective: Bursting Bubbles and Meeting Racism Face-to-Face in the South End

by Cecilia Erin Walsh

“Sidewalk closed.” I stepped around the construction site sign, pressed the crosswalk button, and waited. The usual traffic on Alaska Street crossed in front of me, loud but not so as loud to drown out the voices of construction workers behind me.

“And did you hear about the synagogue in Pittsburgh? All those Jews being killed?” one man asked another, who responded “Oh, yeah,” like he’d rather not talk about it.

I turned to look at the two, apparently white, early-30-somethings in hard hats and reflective vests, shovels in hand, scraping gravel.

“Less Jews in the world. Yeah! I’m down with that,” the first man chortled.

My heart tripped then picked up speed. Had I heard him correctly? The pedestrian light was still red. I had time — for what? I clutched my shoulder bag closer as if in a high wind, or to keep myself from swinging it at the man.

An hour earlier, I’d been reading from Southern Poverty Law Center’s (SPLC) Intelligence Report, a periodical summarizing the center’s work and ongoing challenges. SPLC exposes American hate groups of every sort and seeks justice for the targets of the groups’ aggressions. I read the SPLC literature to stay aware of what is happening outside the “bubble” of generally liberal Seattle, on the far side of the thin film separating the city as different and isolated from less tolerant communities. I think of hate group activities as happening somewhere else.

My neighborhood in particular is socioeconomically and ethnically diverse. At one time our zip code, 98118, was the most linguistically-diverse in the nation. Yard signs say things like, “War is not the answer.” “All are welcome here!” and “We believe science is real.” So when I overheard the man’s words, my brain raced and stumbled. I felt as if I’d found something mistakenly put away in an odd and unlikely place. Hate speech did not belong here, in this neighborhood, within a few blocks of my home.

The man rattled on nonsensically, saying something about how the Jews were enslaved and now they’re controlling everything, all the while scraping and scraping at the gravel. His co-worker seemed to ignore him.

I forced myself to be still afraid of what I might do. I felt I should say something, but could not chose from the swarm of phrases and words gathering in my head like trapped and tormented hornets. My stomach turned. You’re on his turf, some part of my mind reasoned. He’s doing his job. Don’t stop him from working.

Just listen. My eyes locked on the man’s bent head moving rhythmically with his labor. His co-worker said nothing. My light was still red. At last the man looked up and saw me there, or at least he looked at me, looking at him. “You know,” he continued in my direction, “they’re taking over. Controlling everything.” Did he see my sick shock? Did he see me realizing the bubble is much smaller and weaker than I’d thought? I wondered if he thought I might be Jewish — I’m not, but thought for a moment to tell him I was. The heavy metal shovel in his hand deterred me. What if his vitriol turned to physical violence?

Bubbles burst for a number of reasons — dry ambient air, external pressure, increased air turbulence. Though the air around us was still I felt something move. More inside of me than outside, I felt a wave of turbulence, like a deep tremor in the thin film of liberal perspectives, the integrity of the imagined bubble rippled, threatening to shatter.

I looked at the man’s eyes for as long as he looked at me. What I think I saw, beyond a veil of belligerence, was a sliver of uncertainty, an effort to believe in and to protect what he’d been told and read. I think I saw pain, a hint of hurt, the shadow of fear buried deep. Most hatred is born of fear, my reasoning voice reminded me. Just listen. The man bent back to his labor, continuing his monologue with a laudatory reference to the writings of David Duke.

His co-worker stood, both hands on his shovel handle, the blade’s tip pressed into the gravel. “The sidewalk is closed,” he said calmly, but trying to convey some degree of authority or just to point out the fact in case I hadn’t noticed.

“He just re-opened it,” I rejoined, surprising us both, tipping my head very slightly in the speaker’s direction. “With his speech. And I’m here to witness. Someone’s got to witness what he’s saying.”

After a brief moment of quiet staring at one another he shifted his booted feet and went back to work, and I let out a long, slow breath. The light changed. The rhythmic beeping of the signal matched the beat and reverberation of my pounding heart and the deep rattling scrape of metal on gravel. I stepped away from the curb to cross the street, my head aching, stomach lurching. I wanted to run, but walked. I wanted to shout, “You’re a flaming bigot! Get out of my neighborhood!” but I stayed quiet. On the far side of the intersection I looked back as if to be sure what had just happened was real. I considered taking a picture of the man, just as a semi pulled up to make a slow turn, blocking my view. But the evidence was within me. I caught my train into town feeling the proximity of a reality I had effectively denied.

One thought on “Perspective: Bursting Bubbles and Meeting Racism Face-to-Face in the South End”

  1. Thanks for your story.

    If it’s safe, please speak up. A worker on the job is not likely to have a weapon, but could swing a shovel. Fear of losing his job would probably outweigh fear driven anger of his bigotry, but still… Taking a photo (or video) discretely from a safe distance is a good alternative.

    It’s important to document America’s creeping fascism.