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The 'psychological torment' behind the slurs and symbols you pass every day

Many go unreported in public spaces, where, like a billboard, they can be seen by - and impact - a wide audience.

Slurs can appear anywhere: Sidewalks, streets, subway stops, light poles, buildings. Some people write them off as jokes; others find them dangerous and dehumanizing.
Slurs can appear anywhere: Sidewalks, streets, subway stops, light poles, buildings. Some people write them off as jokes; others find them dangerous and dehumanizing.Read morePhilly 311, ADL, Michael Boren

For Kenneth V. Hardy, it was the words scrawled inside a bathroom stall: "Thank god for the police who are killing so-called harmless black men. You're doing society a favor."

For Beulah Osueke, it was the N-word etched into a high school hallway.

For Yoav Perry, it was the swastika meticulously drawn at a SEPTA station.

The vandalism, while not targeting them individually, preyed upon a part of their identities: Hardy and Osueke are black; Perry is Jewish.

Maybe the slurs and symbols were genuine expressions of hate. Maybe they were a joke.

But no matter how small, they have power: Slurs and symbols written in the spaces we pass every day can make people feel vulnerable, paranoid, or unwelcome because the vandalism targets something that defines them, such as religion, or a feature they can't hide, such as race. They're anonymous, so the perpetrator could be anywhere. And they hold particular influence in public spaces, where, like a billboard, they can be seen by a wide audience before they're reported or removed — if they are at all.

"A piece of graffiti can, if no one reports it, be seen over and over and over by hundreds, if not thousands, of people over the course of time," said Nancy K. Baron-Baer, regional director of the Anti-Defamation League. "Once graffiti on a building becomes acceptable, it makes it easier to move to a more serious form of discrimination or bullying. And that's not the society we want to live in."

It's a subject that can draw particularly varied responses. For the purposes of this story, we asked people to share what written slurs or symbols they had encountered. Some described distressing and visceral reactions, mirroring what psychologists agree can be a traumatic experience. Others — many of them white men — wrote off such incidents as "kids being kids" and said people should toughen up.

That people minimize these kinds of vandalism is one reason they don't get reported. There are other causes, too:

  1. People may not know how, or whom, to notify.

  2. They feel they'll be dismissed or labeled a complainer, particularly in environments where others don't look like them. "You don't want to be that person who complains about your difference, because if you bring attention to that, people might treat you very differently," said Howard Stevenson, a professor at the University of Pennsylvania who teaches people how to address racially charged encounters.

  3. They fear acknowledging the slurs will be more hurtful than ignoring them.

"In order to cope, you store these things away, because if you thought about them every single day, you're suddenly paralyzed by it," said Hardy, who saw the writing in the bathroom stall thanking police for killing black men.

It was in a mall near St. Louis where Hardy, a Drexel University professor, was on business last year. The writing made him paranoid: Did others in the mall agree with it? Hardy looked for a janitor to clean it up but couldn't find one.

When he hopped in an Uber for the airport afterward, he couldn't stop thinking about the words. And he realized the driver was white.

" 'I'm in a strange city. What if he doesn't take me where I'm going? What if that sentiment exists within him?' " Hardy recalled thinking. "At that point it's safer to be suspicious and cautious and be wrong, than it is to not be cautious and suspicious — and that be wrong."

It's natural for people to wonder whom they can trust when they encounter written slurs, because anyone could be responsible, Stevenson said. A person may also feel insecure and devalued because one of their defining features was publicly degraded, he said.

"You have to question your humanity, your ability," Stevenson said. "It's a psychological kind of harm."

Quantifying the number of written slurs and symbols that appear each year is difficult. Nonprofits and law enforcement agencies typically group them together with verbal slurs. But overall, expressions of hate have seemingly become more common.

Anti-Semitic incidents surged 57 percent nationwide last year, according to the Anti-Defamation League — the highest percentage increase ever seen in the league's nearly four decades of tracking the data. Pennsylvania and New Jersey had 43 percent and 32 percent increases, respectively. In Philadelphia, the Commission on Human Relations has received 121 reports of bias incidents and hate crimes since the racially charged 2016 presidential election, when the city saw a spike in discriminatory graffiti.

Look around at public spaces — schools, restrooms, parks, transit stations — and chances are, you'll eventually spot a slur:

KKK carved into a bathroom stall at a New Jersey Turnpike rest stop

The N-word written on a bus stop in Center City (not pictured)

After a person wrote "F— Trump" on a SEPTA bench near Seventh and Walnut Streets last year, someone wrote back: "F— the N—– That Wrote This!" with an arrow pointing to the original comment.

Someone filed a complaint with 311 about the obscenity-laden bench, and the racial slur was removed (some of the reference to Trump remained).

A swastika spray-painted outside a playground in Kensington

'Fag' written on a sidewalk in Center City

When Perry saw a swastika at the SEPTA station last year, he was with his wife and 4-year-old daughter, and was exiting the El in Old City to meet up with friends.

Perry's grandfather was killed in the Auschwitz concentration camp and at one time he had tried to give his daughter a simplified overview of the Nazi regime: Some people despised other people for not being the same as they were.

Now, Perry was telling his daughter the swastika had to be erased so everyone would feel welcome. He reported it to a SEPTA employee, who had it removed quickly.

Perry, 44, who lives in Fishtown, likened the drawing to "dog poop."

"It's something that needs to be cleaned and removed," he said. "And everybody should care about it."

When Osueke saw the N-word several years ago in the hallway of West Catholic High School, where she coaches basketball, she immediately wondered who was responsible.

"You don't know if that's an angry white person or a black kid being silly," she recalled.

Osueke knew the slur, seemingly carved in with a key, didn't reflect the students or the West Philly school as a whole. She knew that this was just one person. But the fact someone wrote it in a space where children learn upset her.

"I honestly see it as psychological torment," Osueke, 28, said.

She considered reporting it but thought it might be dismissed amid more pressing issues, such as whether students are succeeding academically. And, as a black woman, she didn't want to let the slur get to her. That, she said, would just reward whoever wrote it.

"You try to make sense of something that doesn't make sense," Osueke said. And then, she explained, "you have to move on with your life."

If you see vandalism that contains slurs or hate symbols, the Anti-Defamation League recommends you report it to law enforcement so it can be documented. In Philadelphia, you can also file a complaint with 311 to get it removed or report it to the city's Commission on Human Relations (215-686-4670).  If the graffiti appears in a school, workplace, or business, request an employee or manager clean it up.