This morning I had an unfortunate experience on the Manhattan-bound R Train. A seat became available at Atlantic Avenue-Barclays Center and anyone who’s lived in New York for longer than 5 minutes knows that nabbing a seat during Rush Hour is prime real estate. The two vying for this particular seat? An older Asian woman and a teenage Latina girl. As the Asian woman raced to nab the empty seat next to me, the teenage girl (who happened to be closer) managed to sit to there first. Generally, the one who gets to the seat first usually puts their head down in shame, feigns indifference, or tries to hide a victorious grin on their face as soon as they’ve touched their ass to the seat but in this unfortunate case the girl began making fun of the woman who lost the seat. Shaking her finger in a condescending manner and mimicking an “Asian” accent she said, "No running! No running!". This elicited an uproar of laughter from her friends standing by the doors and the teenage girl soon joined. The woman who lost the seat didn’t say anything, she just went back to where she was standing above her three kids as the girl and her friends chastised themselves for not recording the incident and putting it on youtube because, “That shit was too funny!” It seemed as though the woman didn’t speak English or didn’t understand it very well because her eldest child, a girl of about fifteen (probably the same age as the teenage girl who raced to grab the empty seat) just shook her head when her mother asked what the girl had said to her.
I stood there in the middle of it all debating whether or not I should apologize to the mistreated woman on behalf of the rude girl and her friends or school that rude young woman to teach her a thing or two about respecting her elders. Or the consequences of perpetuating stereotypes. Or the consequences of being a rude little bitch…
Instead of choosing I stood there frozen, unsure if it was my place to do either.
If I apologized to the mother, what good would it have done? All I would be doing is admitting that I saw that she was mistreated and I failed to do something about it. If I schooled that rude ass girl about the importance of respecting her elders I would be doing her parents’ job and treading on dangerous territory. Should I have brought up the importance of minorities banding together to eliminate stereotypes? If I had spoken to her in the first place, would she have understood why or how she was wrong by making fun of that woman? Would she have understood that not only is she disrespecting an elder, another minority, but she’s also disrespecting another woman?
Instead of choosing I stood there frozen, unsure if it was my place to do anything.
For the next 7 minutes as the train rattled over The Manhattan Bridge all I did was stare off into space and silently fume. I fought with myself over the right thing to do and as I wasted time weighing out all my options, the teenage girl and her friends got off at Canal Street and my opportunity lost amidst their cackling.
I’d like to think I have the pleasure of living off the last stop on the R Train and that I get to live in a neighborhood that is populated with family owned businesses, gardens, schools, and people of all races and colors. I’d like to think that I’m lucky to take the R train to and from Manhattan because the diversity of my morning commute is compelling. I’d very much like to think that.
Unfortunately, it’s not always the case. Unfortunately this 38 minute train ride has only opened my eyes to the way people mistreat each other. At this point, I refuse to describe it as mistreatment - it is an injustice. It has opened my eyes up to the injustices, little and large, minorities commit against each other. It has opened my eyes up to the fact that as an ethnically diverse woman I am caught between my conscience and my indifference.
Judging by the way the teenage girl engaged whole-heartedly in making fun of this woman with her friends I can only assume she had no clue. No fucking clue. No fucking clue that her actions were more malicious and demeaning than light-hearted and funny. No fucking clue that as a teenage girl, as a Latina, she is just as susceptible to injustice as me, that woman standing two seats away, or any other ethnic women on that train. No fucking clue that her mother and father may have endured the same shit she gave to that woman she stole the seat from. She has no fucking clue that her words sting in my gut when I think about the history of racism against people of color (black, brown, or yellow) and how the hate from the majority makes me, my people, and my people’s people hate each other and hate themselves. It makes my head swim with “what if’s?” and “why’s?” and “how could she’s?” And when I turn the questions inward I find myself ashamed that I have no answers to “What if I had spoken up? Why didn’t I speak up? How could I not have spoken up?”
As the train rattled along the subway line and the family got off at Prince Street, I stared at that rude young girl - that rude young woman - and made a vow to myself that next time I would stand up, speak up, and take action with grace, humility, and good intent on my side. This world is too big and too beautiful to allow small acts like these to happen and to be ignored. Between races, between generations, and between women.
Will you hold me to that? Will you hold yourself to that? Let’s make this world a better place by clearing our consciences and standing up for what is right and not what is easy.
Yes, I stole that from Harry Potter - doesn’t make it any less potent or immediate.