Gauge your own comfort level in these situations, and always consider personal safety when choosing to speak up in public.
Allies can be vital in such settings, as can understanding the price of silence. If you don't speak up to that store clerk, that flight attendant or that security guard, who else will?
When two — or three or four or more — people come together, as strangers, to speak in concert against everyday bigotry, pressure for change emerges.
Whether the encounter is with a waiter, a police officer or a cab driver, consider two things: power and policy. Who holds power over the offending person? And are there policies in place that might support your campaign? If so, be vigilant about moving your complaint through proper channels. If not, ask why such polices don't exist — and keep asking, all the way up the ladder.
A Stranger's Remarks
A gay man in Oregon writes about walking down a street the day after a local Gay Pride event. On the sidewalk, he passes a man who tells a female companion, loudly, "There were fags all over the place. I felt like killing them."
A lesbian who at the time was dating a transgender woman shares a similar story of being called "dykes" by someone from across the street. A gay man tells of routinely being called "faggot" while walking down city streets.
A California woman is apartment-hunting with her mother. They are in a restaurant, making friendly conversation with people at another table. Her mother asks which neighborhoods are good for students. The man at the other table says, "Pretty much all of the neighborhoods in town are fine; we try to keep the niggers and Mexicans out of the city limits."
She says, "I was shocked and didn't know what to do. How do you confront a stranger in a restaurant? Or do you? I'll never forget the shock and anger I felt at that moment."
Assess your surroundings.
A heated exchange with a stranger can escalate into physical violence; assess the situation before you respond. Is the speaker with a group of people? Is the space deserted? Are you alone? Are children present? Consider such things before responding.
A questioning glance may be an effective and non-confrontational response in a situation in which you feel unsafe speaking directly. Keep moving.
If you choose to raise the issue, state your beliefs clearly: "I find that language very bigoted. It offends me." Or, "I think it's wrong to stereotype people."
Speak to the proprietor.
If the incident happens in a business, leave. But before you walk out, let the managers know why you're leaving: "The man at the table next to mine kept using the N-word. It made me lose my appetite. Perhaps you should speak to him so you don't lose more business."
Report the incident to an advocacy group.
Local advocacy groups, like gay and lesbian centers and local minority alliances, often keep check on the pulse of a community. Call them; let them know what you heard, when and where. They may see patterns you don't and can work with local government to address ongoing concerns.
Biased Customer Service
In Washington state, a white woman is in a doctor's waiting room when she notices a Russian-speaking immigrant being treated poorly by the receptionist at the front counter. The woman stands up and joins the man at the counter: "I just stood next to him and wouldn't leave until the receptionist finally helped him."
An African American man in the grocery store notices a cashier treating a non-English-speaking woman badly. After checking to see if the woman wants help, the man confronts the manager: "These people live in our community, this person spends money in your store, and your store has a responsibility to be part of this community."
A Colorado woman uses a wheelchair. She is boarding a plane with her husband when the flight attendant says, to the husband, "Will she need help being seated?"
Speak for yourself.
If you're the target of rude customer service, let the person know: "I deserve to be treated with respect in an establishment where I spend money." Or, "Please ask me, not my husband, what I need."
Make eye contact.
Look at other people witnessing this exchange. Use body language to appeal for their assistance and support.
Don't allow someone to be mistreated when you have the power to help. Don't stick solely to "your" issues. Speak up against bigotry wherever it happens, whoever is involved. As the man in the grocery store said, "Your problem is my problem. We're in this together."
Bigoted Corporate Policy
A Latino family stops at a fast-food restaurant where a Latina employee greets them at the counter. The husband orders, "Dos del numero uno y dos del numero cuatro, por favor."
The clerk responds, "Can you repeat that in English, please?"
The husband repeats the order in English, then adds, "But you speak Spanish; you have an accent just like mine."
The clerk looks over her shoulder and says, "Yes, I do, but I'm not supposed to speak Spanish here; I could get in trouble with my supervisor."
On the drive home, the man's 4-year-old daughter is crying.
They pull over to see what's wrong, and the little girl whispers in her mother's ear, in Spanish, "I don't know how to speak a lot of English, and I don't want to get in trouble."
Discuss, don't blame.
Discuss the policy with front-line employees, asking for more information about what lies behind the policy. "What's the problem if we want to speak Spanish? We don't harm anyone. Do you know why they have this rule? What is behind it?"
Move up the ladder.
Ask to speak to the on-site manager, then ask that person to explain the policy further and describe why it exists. Request contact information for the owner or corporate headquarters. Also ask what the formal complaint procedure is, then use it.
Get it in writing.
Ask to see written store policy, either from the on-site manager or from the owner or corporate headquarters. Ask who ultimately determines the policy, then pursue changes through that person.
Appeal to the media.
When companies are unresponsive to your inquiries, take the issue to your local paper or to the national press. Seek out journalists who write about race relations or community diversity. Explain what has happened, and provide documentation.