"Oh, the comfort – the inexpressible comfort of feeling safe with a person – having neither to weigh thoughts nor measure words, but pouring them right out, just as they are, chaff and grain together, certain that a faithful hand will take and sift them, keep what is worth keeping, and with the breath of kindness, blow the rest away.” — Dinah Maria Mulock Craik, poet and novelist (1826-1887)


Last week when the Boston Red Sox and Baltimore Orioles resumed their already-contentious baseball matchup, the ugly element of prejudice rose front and center. This heated rivalry started earlier this season, when Oriole third baseman Manny Machado slid hard into Red Sox second basemen Dustin Pedroia, injuring Boston’s star player and putting him out of the game.

Pedroia was out with an injury from that play for about a week and had just reentered the lineup for this series. Tensions were high and hitting Machado with a pitched ball to the hip area, on purpose, is part of baseball's unspoken rules. However, after several failed attempts, Red Sox fireball pitcher Matt Barnes came in with a pitch that was head-high; even though Machado was able to duck out of the way, Barnes was promptly ejected from the game by the umpires, heightening things even more for both teams and the fans.

The fact that Machado is black and Pedroia and Barnes are white was probably insignificant to both the Red Sox and Oriole players; but perhaps not to the Boston faithful. Later in the series, outfielder Adam Jones accused Boston fans of using the N-word during the game, directed at him. Jones shared this in his post-game comments and portrayed Boston as a racist city to black players like himself.

The Red Sox responded strongly, ejecting fans and banning some for life from ever coming back into Fenway Park. The next night, many Boston fans tried to atone by giving Jones a standing ovation during his first at-bat, many holding signs supporting the Baltimore slugger and letting him know that Boston was not that kind of city.

The following night, the last of the four-game series was played, and another racial slur was thrown out at one of the Oriole players; this time, a fan in the stands responded and called out the man for his racially charged word, while summoning security. His young 6-year old son was with him and he needed to stand up to racism; somehow, he instinctively knew that you are either part of the solution, or you are part of the problem.

Exploring the courage to step up in times like this is intriguing. Last year while I was at Foxwoods playing “no limit Texas hold ’em” poker, a white "redneck" lost a tough hand to an urban black "dude" in the wee hours of the night. It was a "bad beat," the redneck losing on the last card; the redneck reacted poorly, muttering the word "monkey" under his breath, loud enough for the entire table to hear.

What do you do in a situation like this? Mostly, we tend to want to ignore it, or we hope someone in authority deals with it. In this case, the dealer just began reshuffling the cards for the next hand while the rest of us sat frozen, wanting another hand to be dealt as soon as possible. It temporarily ends if nobody speaks out, but the lingering effect has legs.

In this case, the "dude," though overmatched in size by the redneck, whose buddy sat to his left, called him out anyway. "What did you say?" asked the dude, looking in the direction of the redneck. What followed was some uncomfortable back and forth, with the redneck asking the dude if he was calling him a racist and suggesting they go outside to discuss it. The dude shook his head and said he didn't appreciate being called that name, while the redneck insisted it was just a word and wasn't directed at the dude.

We all knew what we had seen; that's the thing about racism — it might be hard to describe, but when you see it, you know it.

The dealer wimped out and basically tried to defuse the situation by telling the dude, the redneck and the redneck’s buddy, who had now joined the conversation, that we needed to get back to playing cards. A couple of hands later, the redneck got up, with his buddy, and they both exited the table.

While I worried about the dude's safety afterward, and I sought out the dude at the cashier station later on in the evening when I saw he was cashing out to tell him I was on his side, it felt empty — being on his side would have been to stand up for him, at the table, letting redneck and redneck’s friend know that using the word "monkey" was highly inappropriate.

It's easy to rationalize not saying anything: not knowing what to say, not wanting to escalate the situation or heighten the tensions are reasons for just staying quiet. But, that doesn't move us forward. It is not a good reason, it is an excuse.

Hindsight helps us figure out how it might have played out. Instead of the dude handling it himself, someone else at the table, me included, could have confronted the redneck with a simple "That's not cool," and, if the situation wasn't defused, ask the dealer to summon security and let them deal with it. But the fear of confrontation and the fear of retribution both proved too much for me, and apparently for the others at the table, to overcome. So we just sat quietly while the 140-pound dude stood up for himself, alone, against the 220-pound redneck supported by his 220-pound friend.

The reality is that it boils down to conviction and courage; how we get there is a journey.

This is the not the first time I've been put in that position, and the challenge is to learn how to hold accountable those in your path. How we do that is tough, but this incident tells me that keeping it simple is the path to take. Don't moralize, don't point your finger; simply saying that what is happening is just "not cool" is my best “after-the-fact” answer.

What about you? How would you handle situations like this? I want to know; comment online or send me an email.