Handling sexism and racism from those in poverty and addiction

I just read an article by Ian Young in the South China Morning Post called “On a sunny Vancouver afternoon, he called us ‘the g-word’ and told us to go home” which introduces the narrator, and the reader, to the experience of reacting to being told they are not wanted, as well as handling hostile behaviour.

For those reading it not in Vancouver, the area he speaks about this is a lot different than where I live — in the heart of Chinatown, where I hear these types of things almost daily, and I’m perpetually torn on how to react. I don’t say that to suggest my experience is worse, I’m a middle aged white guy — I’m writing this with privilege and empathy.

Chinatown, where I live at least, is a few blocks away from the epicenter of poverty and addiction in Canada, the downtown east side.

I witness people in poverty and addiction yelling racist and/or sexist inappropriate comments almost daily. Yesterday I witnessed an Asian woman get pushed to the ground. When a woman or an Asian person is walking alone, and crossing paths with someone who is mentally unwell, it is common for me to observe or hear something that makes me want to intervene, but I often don’t.

There are a few reasons I don’t, but I’m open to suggestions. The first one is that my intervention is likely to escalate the issue just by intervening, compounded by my lack of skills in de-escalation, it’s hard not to let emotions over ride, which is what the vulnerable person is seeking — a little taste of power and control, where they live a life as vulnerable.

Another action I could take is to call the police, but even with an assault, such as the one I witnessed yesterday, the police surprisingly happened to be on the block I was on, so they were forced to join the scene and quickly interact, just enough to de-escalate the tension and then walk off within 2 minutes of the assault. As soon as the police left, it re-escalated. Not to fault the police — what would it take of their time to press assault charges, based on the word of mostly homeless and addicted observers.

As a result, the tensions continue, the less safe, or in the least the less welcome my Asian and female friends feel walking alone in the neighbourhood, and I’m not sure what we can do to resolve the issue.

I am still convinced it needs to be done with compassion, and empathy, as no one who is happy with themselves needs to make another feel unwelcome.

For anyone who identifies as even slightly empathetic, this is a good check in with your capabilities on maturely handling your emotions. Receiving such feedback from someone who is intoxicated, or suffers from mental health & addiction is not unlike receiving it from a child. Choosing to react to it, letting it get to you, or escalating the issue, would likely do nothing productive other than satisfy the antagonist.