Kids, This is Racism

July 4, 2017

Last year Michael and I took the light rail downtown to see the 4th of July fireworks. You were with your Dad at another celebration. I wish you had been with us, so we could talk about what happened, so you could see this up close.

The train home was slow to arrive, and hot and crowded when it did. We piled in and squished against each other until the train was packed enough to leave. A woman sat near us with a stroller surrounded by all the tired, sweaty bodies.

Suddenly she hollered at another woman near her. “Don’t bump my baby!” Her tone was abrupt, her request unrealistic in the packed train car. The infant slept in a car seat within the stroller, likely the most comfortable passenger on train. Dropping her volume a bit, she explained. “She’s small and I just … don’t want her bumped.”

I know this moment – managing kids on a long hot night, when you cannot handle one more crying episode, one more mishap.

The standing woman rolled her eyes and turned in the opposite direction. “She’s gonna get bumped by the train anyway.”

The woman sitting with the baby was black, the standing woman was white. Each also had kids with her about your age, upper grade school or early middle school. As the train ambled along, the white woman now looked annoyed and nervous. She clutched the railing and her daughter tight, trying to avoid bumping the stroller as she was bounced about. She chatted non-stop with her daughter, about the week and the day.

At one point she stroked her daughter’s hair and said, “Everyone is important. We are all equal.” She repeated similar phrases, at a volume loud enough to carry. What was spoken with the steady tone of a peaceful mantra, carried an undertone of aggression.

She didn’t say “all lives matter,” but I doubt I am the only one who heard it. It was the façade of a lecture to her daughter, spoken loudly enough for someone else. This was two days before Philando Castile was killed by a local police officer just a few miles away. Black Lives Matter was already well established in Minneapolis in response to a history of similar incidents.

Several stations later the train came to a stop. The black woman got up, then screamed at the white woman to let her through. Now her voice held full furor, well beyond the abruptness of her original tone.

The white woman immediately leaned forward and screamed back, eager to engage. Shouts flowed. Both women leaned toward each other, arms gesturing wildly. A few passengers urged the black woman to step off before the doors closed again. The two women kept on. Each boasted how many passengers must be on her side.

Then the black woman looked around. There was no support for the argument to continue. Its end depended on her exit. Her expression fell, and she stepped off the train.

We jerked back into motion. The remaining woman made a few comments insisting none of it was her fault. Then no one spoke.

I’m sure some passengers thought the black woman was to blame. She spoke first. She started it. But the antagonism in the other woman’s voice seemed determined to say, “What you want isn’t important.”

You may think, as the white woman clearly did, that the harsh tone of the black woman should be nipped in the bud. Zero tolerance. She needed someone to set her straight. This mentality fuels in people an indignant obligation to apply behavior modification, but really punishment and disregard are the only tools in their kit.

Most of us have some version of the black woman’s behavior that night. Have you ever been short with someone, a friend, a teacher, or total stranger? Me? You might have been embarrassed later, disappointed at your own behavior. I have.

What would I have done had she asked me not to bump her baby’s stroller?

I think I would have promised to try, while pointing out the challenge of the bumpy ride and crowded train. I may have smiled, asked her baby’s age, asked how it went managing such a young one in the loud night – small talk we mothers often make with each other. I would have tried to show her that I saw her baby, and meant her no harm. I have mothered babies. I know how tightly wound caring for an infant can leave you.

It is easy to claim I would have handled that train incident differently. When I first tried to write about this, I fumbled around with words like grace and kindness and what the white woman should have done instead. But it wasn’t right. Something was missing.

As I struggled, Michael was reading Between the World and Me by Ta-Nehisi Coates, a book of essays to his son. He encouraged me to read it, because I was writing this to you, and because there was a similar incident in it.

Coates had taken his young son to a theater on the Upper West Side of Manhattan.  They exited the theater via a crowded escalator.  When they stepped off, an impatient woman pushed his young son out of her way.

“Many things now happened at once. There was the reaction of any parent when a stranger lays the hand on the body of his or her child. And there was my own insecurity in my ability to protect your black body…

…I was only aware that someone had invoked their right over the body of my son. I turned and spoke to this woman, and my words were hot with all of this moment and all of my history.”

As the exchange continued, the man with the woman threatened Coates with, “I could have you arrested!”

Coates unflinchingly deconstructs his complex emotions around that event. He responded as any parent would, and yet struggled with feelings of self-recrimination. He felt his instinctive reaction, however justified, made his son more vulnerable in that moment. Every parent can relate to the fear of being unable to protect one’s child. But this was beyond that. This was that same fear, covered with layers of a constant anxiety I have not experienced.

I started this piece because I wished the people on that train could imagine the black mother’s perspective, could have given her room to just be having a tough night, some room to express protectiveness of her daughter. I want to equip you with a thought process that arms you with compassion in such situations, rather than fear of discomfort.

Was the black woman a rude person? Or was she reflecting a life of feeling unsafe? Or was she just an exhausted mother at the end of a long night? I can’t know now.  Imagine how either incident would have played out if her stress in parenthood had been met with understanding instead of indignation.

Was the white woman on the train racist?  She could have just been a mother having a bad night too. But that changed in my eyes when she began her all lives matter mantra. It was a taunt. And it worked. The black woman wasn’t picking on a white woman for being white. Almost the whole train car was white.

As I sat quiet on that train, and fumbled to write about it since, I was hung up on the belief that the black woman had, in fact, started it. I failed to see her full humanity even though I was trying to see it.

I looked on the white woman as the villain, the racist. I imagined myself some sort of savior if only it had happened to me instead. I’d have been kind and there would have been no conflict. That was the narrative spinning in my head until I read Coates’ essay.

Racism steals a person’s right to be recognized as fully human and imperfect. Statistically, our society responds to errors by people of color with more punitive measures. Then we justify it by saying he should have known better, she should have acted different. We leave no room for a human reaction. And like I did that night, the rest of us stand by in silence.

Looking back, I could have been that mother’s ally.  Instead of imagining myself in the other white mother’s shoes, making motherly conversation, I could have struck up that conversation anyway. I could have let her know someone near her cared about how she felt and what concerned her, but I didn’t. I failed my fellow mother that night.

This is racism. It is so subtle. It is woven through a million daily interactions that say “you are lesser than.” We can’t solve it because we refuse to see it in ourselves. Then we compound its violation every time we deny its presence.

Maybe that small intervention would not have mattered at all. Maybe I could have and should have done other things. But at a minimum, that black woman deserved to have someone on her side.

We cling to our posterchild of racism, the redneck parading the confederate flag, an easy symbol of hate. We point the finger elsewhere and smugly deem ourselves innocent.  We believe it is that simple.

I am a 40-something social progressive who grew up in Jackson, Mississippi. My upbringing was surrounded by blacks and whites on the heels of the Civil Rights Movement. I have always believed racial equality important, and was raised to value it. But I am still not awake enough to process an event like this and think on my feet quickly enough to act. That is my job to fix, and as you grow up, it is yours too.

Always try to look inside yourself as unflinchingly as Coates did.  Listen to voices like his, of those who are willing to tell their stories and lay their humanity out for you to see.  Listen to those who have experienced that which you never will.  Look inside our history and our statistics and who is suffering and how we got here.

On this day we set aside to celebrate freedom and independence, we have to be honest with ourselves about how we look away. When this country was founded, almost 20% of its population was enslaved. We declared independence and signed documents of freedom with one hand, and continued cracking the whip of imprisonment with the other.

Today, in the subtlety of daily life, we still do.