/ 10 February 2012

The cost of taking a stand

I was fired from my first job at McDonald’s when I was 16. The crew members, as they call the staff, were always complaining about the unfair working conditions, but when the time came to explain our grievances to the boss I was the only one who was naive enough to speak. Everybody else kept quiet. After that staff meeting I was told that my ­services were no longer required.

When you stand up for yourself you become unpopular, even to yourself. I considered these words when I read the story of the Alexandra woman who was allegedly verbally abused by a man at a Virgin Active gym in Morningside, Johannesburg, recently. According to the woman, who is in her 50s, a white man delivered an unminced serving of good old-fashioned racism — disdain that probably has certain deceased AWB members doing cartwheels in their graves: “kaffir” this, “bitch” that, sprinkled with clichés such as “you were born with four legs and a tail”.

At the same time the man’s friend splashed the woman with water from his squeeze bottle. All this because she expressed her enthusiasm for the spinning class by shouting “yebo” a number of times — something I am sure would have irritated me too.

The men’s actions are grossly unjustified and one would think that somebody, at least the spinning instructor, would have leaped to the victim’s defence. But it appears nobody defended her.

Nobody did what we all imagine we would have done as anti-racists in a racist ­situation.

I am not badly affected by this man’s outburst for two reasons: the story seems one-dimensional and I wait to hear the other side. I also reserve my concern for the reaction to the incident by bystanders. If it happened the way the woman described it, why did nobody get involved to try to right the wrong?

My friends and I got involved while having dinner at a well-known Thai restaurant in Rosebank recently. The results were discouraging. The restaurant was serving alcohol to a table of 14-year-olds next to us. When we confronted the managers, they became defensive and turned the issue around to make it look as if they were the victims of a corrupt legal system. Their argument did not make sense and we tired of ­arguing with an insular adversary. In the end we did not feel as though we had won. It did not feel as though we had done ­anything right. The children slipped out while the adults were talking about them.

That is the thing about standing up. It is not meant to be appealing. It is not designed to be the precursor to popularity. Most times you will come out feeling as if you have done something wrong when you have stood up; other times you will be scared and even feel as though you are unjustified in opening your mouth.

It is easy to eschew responsibility when a situation asks for it. It is easy not to act when a situation demands action.