Recently, a video began to circulate around social media: Cellphone footage shot on a Bay Area Rapid Transit train shows an enraged white man yelling and hitting a passenger of Asian descent. It is a disgustingly familiar scene nowadays: shaky mobile evidence of racist tirades delivered by inexplicably unprovoked white customers — or, in this case, a public transportation passenger — against people of color. The video also usually plays as such: the angry bully berating a person of color who stands silent, weathering out the storm.
The other damaging aspect of these videos is more difficult to face and understand: Part of the reason I think people are so fascinated by these instances of visceral, uninhibited hate — this manifestation of xenophobia and racism — is that they seem so unusual. But in reality, racism is omnipresent — in angry public outbursts, institutions and systems and even everyday innocuous interactions.
Most noteworthy about this footage is that the victim depicted, Charles Wu, stood up. He looked ready to fight, until a fellow passenger stopped him. I don’t know if Wu would have actually fought the man who physically threatened him. I wouldn’t have wanted him to. Violence against such a hateful tirade would not have been an effective solution to an attack with so much context, history and bloodshed behind it.
I don’t enjoy watching these videos, and usually try to refrain from doing so in general, but there was something different about the power dynamics in this one: Wu, a man of Asian heritage, first (apparently, before the video begins) tells the angry man to cease a racist commentary, before standing up to him. “You think I’m afraid of you,” the perpetrator tells Wu, presumably confused why Wu has not backed away or changed seats because of the attack.
“Never said that, sir,” Wu said. The man holds for a long moment, maybe surprised at Wu’s American accent, maybe surprised Wu said anything at all. One thing’s for sure: When white perpetrators bully and threaten people of Asian descent in public places, they do so without anticipation of resistance. They take strength in the idea that they are inherently more valuable to this country than the people they target, the same ideology that also hinges on the idea that their targets are stereotypically weaker.
What’s different about the BART train footage from other viral videos that have risen to infamy on the internet, is that here the viewer watches the bully’s understanding of who Wu is shifting before him. The power dynamics fall apart instantly — after the man attacks Wu, Wu stands up and the man backs away.
Why the man began targeting Wu relentlessly is unclear in the video itself. But the tendency for Western society to view those of Asian descent as quiet and submissive, the men as fragile and the women as sexually exotic, is a horrible notion that leaks into everyday interaction — and certainly something more extreme in this case. It is clear that the perpetrator didn’t see in Wu somebody that also would present a threat. Growing up in Ohio and traveling with my own father (we are both of Asian descent), I’ve seen this sort of harassment directed toward him — not in this extreme, but in the same vein. What sort of thrill did this bully experience, standing over Wu, mocking him and threatening to hit him and then actually doing so? What a demented and sadly realistic parallel to the way this mentality operates in everyday behavior.
And for the bystanders around Wu who did nothing, and said nothing, that is understandable, because who wouldn’t be afraid if the moment of violence were directed toward them?
Still, it is disheartening. Wu himself disparages this, in an interview afterward: “During it, I was just angry and frustrated that this guy is saying all this terrible stuff and no one said anything to stop him.”
But it is also extraordinarily poignant that the one person, other than Wu, who did physically intervene, putting herself between the victim and the bully, was a black woman — talking close to Wu as the bully stood behind her, egging Wu on. It brings to light a sad and proven truth: In times of intense oppression, when people with hateful ideas are encouraged more and more, it takes a sense of intersectional unity to stay afloat.
Zoe Cheng is a junior majoring in writing for screen and television. Her column, “Cross Section,” runs Tuesdays.