This weekend, my family and I went to the zoo. My daughter’s at an age where she’s really starting to be interested in animals and it seemed like one of the lowest risk and least stressful attractions we could visit, given that, with the exception of two minutes at the ticket desk, the whole experience would take place outside.
In actual fact, it wasn’t as stress-free as I’d anticipated. Although visitor numbers were limited to help support social distancing and a one-way system was in place, bottlenecks around the most popular enclosures (particularly the gorillas’) meant that it was almost impossible not to pass close to people at certain points.
In addition, there was the issue that many of the animals (understandably) had gone on strike and remained inside their shelters while clusters of noisy humans peered through the bars outside, trying to get a glimpse of them. With several enclosures empty on account of Covid-19 travel restrictions, which meant that the creatures who had been expected to occupy them were stranded in other parts of the world, there were long stretches of walking with little to see.
Still, after four months of fairly limited exposure to new places and experiences, it was pleasurable to go somewhere different. With a relative dearth of animals to observe, we turned our attention to people watching.
The thing that struck us all first was how strange it felt to be among crowds after months of minimal contact with other humans. ‘It’s very noisy when people talk to each other,’ said my daughter and she was right: when we approached one of the major picnic areas, the sound of multiple human voices rumbled and buzzed much more loudly than I was used to, putting me in mind of a giant swarm of bees.
The most memorable encounter with human beings in the wild, however, happened towards the end of our visit. Walking behind another family group, my husband and I were taken aback when the father in front leaned over to tell a woman he was passing: ‘Speak in English!’
The woman, who I think had been speaking Italian, was extremely quick-witted and broke off her conversation to call over her shoulder: ‘If I want!’ This clearly riled the already angry man in front, who let fly a volley of obscene abuse, focused on the foreignness, cleanliness and femaleness of the woman.
Luckily, by this stage, the one-way system had swept him far enough that it’s unlikely the target of his hatred heard what he had to say – although his initial comment about the language she was speaking had made his contempt for her plain.
Walking a few metres behind him, my husband and I found ourselves at a loss. I’m a great believer in the importance of challenging prejudice and supporting those who experience it. I agree with the many eloquent appeals that have been made in the wake of the #BlackLivesMatter protests stating that silence is complicity when it comes to discrimination. Yet, in that moment, I was struck dumb.
Talking about it afterwards, we realised there were several factors at play. The first had to do with the extreme aggression of the man, who, judging by his body language was spoiling for a fight. Tackling him with our three-year-old in tow carried some risks.
The second was caused partly by the Covid-19 restrictions. Because the one-way system meant that the victim was already out of earshot by the time it would have been possible to challenge the man, much of the point of acting in that moment was lost. There would have been no way of communicating to her that someone cared that she had been abused and was trying to do something about it.
The third reason had to do with shock. In the moment of the attack and for some minutes afterwards, our brains were jammed. Disbelief made it impossible to think clearly. Although I have heard and read plenty of reports of xenophobic incidents in the UK, particularly in the wake of the Brexit referendum, I cannot remember the last time I witnessed such behaviour firsthand. I knew but had not felt the reality of it.
The experience was a violent one. In a strange way, my brain responded almost as if I were also a victim of the man’s aggression. On some level, it was as though he had assaulted my understanding of the world I inhabit. (Sadly, I suspect the woman he verbally attacked was a lot more familiar with such exchanges – and that this was one of the reasons she was so quick to react.)
We both felt uncomfortable about our failure to do anything and so, once we got home, my husband reported the incident to the police. It was unclear from the online form whether the event would be treated as a hate crime – the question relating to this focused on race and ethnicity, which weren’t at issue here. However, as my husband argued, the abuse was centred on the woman’s foreignness and difference. It was hate as far as those were concerned.
I doubt much will come of this. Probably the details of the incident will be logged and filed away. Maybe it will become part of a statistic wheeled out for people like me to shake their heads at in news articles now and again. I suspect it won’t do anything to make that woman feel more welcome in this country or that man any less likely to lash out.
Still, it has taught me this: the mental bandwidth that navigating the changed world of the pandemic requires makes it harder than ever to watch out for and protect the rights of others. The pressure that we are all under means that it is vital to have responses ready if and when prejudice rears its ugly head. I have got some thinking to do.
* Photo changed in response to concerns about racial connotations in the original image.