On Racism and Respect

Brittney Sedgwick
September 5, 2019
Flag of Austria

Last night, my roommates and I were each studying quietly in our rooms when we heard a knock on our apartment door. At first, I assumed that perhaps one of us had been out, doing laundry maybe, and needed to be let in. I finished up a sentence of German homework before getting up, but by the time I did, one of my roommates, I’ll call her by her middle name Faye for anonymity, had already answered the door. It was an older Austrian woman who lived in the apartment building with us. 

“Do you understand German?” the woman asked. 

“Not really, I’m sorry,” Faye answered. 

Then the woman said, “Okay, then I will show you,” and walked into our apartment. She took the door handle and turned it as she closed the door, saying “You do it like this.” 

Then she reopened the door, and slammed it. “Not like this,” she said. 

Faye apologized. The woman said a few other things that I didn’t quite catch, then on her way out, she slammed the door behind her. It was the loudest I had ever heard a door slam. 

A few moments later, our doorbell rang. Then it rang again, then three times, and then there was pounding. I quickly came into the hallway, as did another one of my roommates. Faye was still closest to the door, which was visibly moving with each thrash to its other side. Nervous, Faye opened the door again. 

It was the same woman, but this time accompanied by two others: another woman, in her underwear and a sleeping mask, and a large man, four times my size, who had clearly been the one beating our door. 

He immediately started yelling. “You slam this all the time. In and out, every ten minutes. 5pm, 9pm…”

“I am trying to sleep,” the woman in her underwear said at the same time. 

Faye inserted a muted: We are very sorry.

The man continued on. “It is always this,” he said, kicking our front door repeatedly. It slammed against the wall each time, echoing throughout the stairwell. My roommates and I stood stiff and voiceless. 

“You do this one more time,” he said, throwing our door at the wall, “I will call the police. I will call the police and have you sent back to wherever you came from.”

“We are very sorry,” Faye said. 

“One more time,” he rearticulated. “I will call the police.” Then he slammed the door closed. 

We stood frozen in the hallway, breath held, muscles clenched, listening. Outside of our door, the three Austrians exchanged a few words in German before dispersing into their respective apartments. 

Moments later, we received a text from our RA (Resident Austrian). She said that she heard the entire interaction, and offered to come talk with us. When she arrived, we restated what happened, still standing in the hallway. 

“The weird thing is,” Faye began, “is that we were all in our rooms. We weren’t even talking to each other, let alone going in and out, slamming the door. And the only reason those other people came afterward is because the first lady slammed our door when she left.” 

There are a lot of truths here. It is true that we were all quietly doing homework, and it is also true that we had not even left our apartment (and therefore did not slam our door) to prompt the first woman’s visit. It is also true that we, like others in the building, have a door that is loud when it closes. 

One feature of the newly renovated apartments in this building is that our door locks automatically when shut. In order to lock it, though, it must either be slammed, or closed quietly, then pulled or leaned against with force in order to trigger the lock. It makes a relatively loud noise either way. Throughout the day and into the evening, doors that are not our’s can also be heard slamming shut. Our staircase is an echo chamber, and even whispers travel. 

Our RA said not to worry. She assured us that we wouldn’t be kicked out, and she said that she would tell the landlord our side of the story (apparently she spoke briefly with the Austrians, who threatened us with the landlord). She also said not to take any of that too personally, including the racist remark. Every year, students studying in Vienna with IES Abroad live here. Apparently they have not always been as respectful as us, and there have been instances of these students yelling after the curfew, throwing parties, etc. 

From here, I began to understand the point of view of these Austrians. I see that they are frustrated, and I am sorry that, year after year, they have to live next to students who are often disrespectful.

However, regardless of past experiences, nothing warrants the aggression with which we were met. Nothing warrants screaming at three young, foreign girls and kicking their door against the wall, making more noise than we ever could have, and absolutely nothing warrants such a racist comment, threatening to have us sent back from wherever we came. That is the exact rhetoric used by countless bigots and racists around the world. That is the rhetoric of many political leaders which has started wars between countries, communities, and individuals. 

The only reason for having directed their anger towards us, is their predisposition to privileged, foreign students. My roommate even noted that, when we moved in, the man watched us with disgust. She heard him saying, “I hate English.”

I may never know what that man’s life was like, and I may never know what awful experiences he has had with foreigners living in his country, and especially next door to him. 

What I do know, is that I grew up in the diverse city of Philadelphia. During my time there, I have had negative experiences with every type of person. However, if I were to hold entire groups of people accountable for the actions of one, then I would be contributing to the hate that is destroying our humanity. 


…If we treat our neighbors with respect, the world will be a better place.

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Brittney Sedgwick

<p><span style="color:#333333">I am Brittney Sedgwick, a rising junior studying Music Performance at Gettysburg College. I sing classical music: art song, opera, chamber music, and more. Before attending Gettysburg, I spent four years studying creative writing. I love reading poetry, drinking tea, going for sunset walks, and stargazing. </span></p>

2019 Fall
Home University:
Gettysburg College
Philadelphia, PA
Music Performance
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