Friday, April 24, 2009

The Flip Side

When I lived in Chicago, I rode the L to work. (The “L” is an abbreviation for the Elevated Train—part of Chicago’s mass transit system.)

One evening I rode the train home from work and scored an outer aisle train seat. As is typical during Chicago rush hour, the train was packed. I noticed an elderly woman, maybe 70, standing, with no seat, and holding onto a hand rail. I made eye contact with her and mouthed across the crowded train, “Would you like my seat?”

She soundlessly replied, “Oh, yes please.”

As she slowly made the journey to my/her seat, I stood up. After I stood up, a little sever-year-old boy scurried through the crowded train and plunked himself into the seat I reserved for the elderly woman. As she neared, I squatted down to talk to him, “Sweetie, I am giving this seat to this woman.”

He stared at me. And stayed in the seat.

I tried again, and with a smile said, “Please get up and give that seat to this woman.”

He got up and scuttled through the north side commuters back to his mother.

The elderly woman graciously thanked me and got her seat.

What I got floored me.

The mother of the sever-year-old boy started yelling at me across the L, “What?!?! We paid just as much as you and her for our tickets and my son has just as much right to sit in that seat as y’all.” The little seven-year-old boy stood wide-eyed behind his mother, whose chest puffed out almost as much as her angry eyes. She was PISSED.

Oh boy.

I looked at her, pointed to the sign that read, “Priority Seating for Senior Citizens and Handicapped Riders”, and loudly said, “When I stood up to give my seat to this woman, your son came over and sat down. I asked him to stand up so this seventy-year-old woman could sit down.”

Although I don’t know for sure, I’m pretty sure what the little boy’s mother heard was, “You’re black and your son is black and you don’t matter as much as we white people do so you have a second class ticket and can stand up until Evanston for all I care.”

She glared at me. And yelled some more. Her friend glared at me. The other commuters observed with cautious eyes.

The black woman kept staring at me and as passengers started to get off the train, she migrated closer and closer to me. I started to question my vigilant efforts to give my priority seat to an old woman and began to worry about my safety. Eventually they stood just beside me, the black woman and her friend and their children. They nastily talked about me and angrily pointed at me. Eventually I’d had enough. I stared at her and her group and said, “Are you talking to me?”


“Do you have something to say to me?”


The next stop was Wellington which meant it was time for me to depart.

I exited the train on legs that weren’t suited to carry anyone. My knees felt like they’d had four stiff drinks. A man walked down the steps behind me and said, “You did the right thing.” Although his encouragement felt wonderful (I almost hugged him), I hoped he was right. This encounter etched itself into my memory; 14 years later, I can still feel my stomach pummeling as I tried to do the right thing while inadvertently insulting another woman.

To me, the situation was very clear; older people get priority seating. To her, well, I’ll have to guess. But my hunch is that my actions represented every bigoted white person she’d ever encountered. I kicked a black person out of a seat for a white person.

As each of us does, she brought a lifetime of experiences into that moment. To her, my actions clearly profiled my preference for white over black. I brought my own lifetime—based not on what is white, or black.

I wonder what the seven-year-old boy remembers, if anything, about that evening. He’d be 21 now. Does he carry a grudge? Is he cautious around white people? Has he had positive, endearing experiences with white people? Or does he hear them making bigoted jokes about aspirin?

I wish I could talk to them now.

Tuesday, April 21, 2009

Jokes Are Supposed to be Funny

A good friend relayed a story today and I haven't been able to shake it. The premise is familiar. Before I hop on my soap box, I’ll give the details.

My friend is black. He works at a facility where 95% (if not 99%) of the members are white. He entered this job holding disdain and uncertainty about white people. Over the course of his work tenure, his feelings changed and his perspective altered. White people were not awful. In fact, they were no longer an entity, they were various individuals.

Today when I saw him, he was flat. He seemed tired, maybe sad. He told me that last week, while he was at work, he heard a friend of his repeatedly tell a joke. (I hate to repeat the joke for fear that its bigoted threads will weave into someone else’s psyche, but I must.) The joke goes like this:

Joke teller: “Did you hear that Obama is going to raise taxes on aspirin by 40%?”
Unsuspecting joke receiver: “No. Why?”
Joke teller: “Because it’s white and it works.”

(I wonder how many years this joke has been in circulation, the only change being the Democratic president de jour. My pal noted the inherent irony that the joke is being told while our country’s first black president holds office.)

The first time the joke was told, my friend wasn’t supposed to hear it.
The second time he heard the same joke, told to a different group, he was merely miffed.
The third time he heard the joke, he became furious. Yes, he was sick of the constant recanting of the joke. But what really got him was the way his white friends, upon hearing the punch line, reacted.

They smiled and laughed. And they agreed with the philosophy behind the joke, proven by their “cosigning”—discussing the joke and their agreement with the premise. They jumped on the racist bandwagon and did donuts around their black friend.

Through their actions, these white people confirmed that they believed that black people are lazy. And that white people do all the “heavy lifting” in our society. In the process they crushed the spirit and hope of my friend.

I haven’t stopped thinking about this. After my pal relayed his story, I, too, was crushed. Mad. Heavy. I felt like crying.

I tried to make sense of this mess. This ignorant bigotry is learned—it’s not inherent. Generations pass it down to the next unsuspecting generation. From infancy through adulthood, through subtleties, stereotypes and stigmas, racism continues. It flourishes because we allow it to do so.

Then I started thinking about our kids. We can teach our children the right way. Abby plays daily with children of many different ethnicities. It is glorious. Naturally, she notes the physical differences between her and her friends. But that is where the comparison ends. She does not place one child over another because of their hair, their eyes or the color of their skin.

As her mother, I wonder how to nurture her open, accepting soul. How do I preserve her tolerance and protect her and her generation from the insidious racism that can still warp the educated minds of our society? Abby and Henry perceive everything and absorb the slightest nuance. They take hubby's and my cues--we are always teaching and they are always learning. They will grow up knowing that jokes masquerading as racism are not funny.

My friend and I are fortunate. We talk. We discuss all of the taboo subjects—race, religion, homosexuality, stem-cell research and politics—with openness. Many times we don’t agree—but that’s the point. We keep on talking.

So I’m going to talk with my kids. And I hope that the conversation never ends. As for the bigoted aspirin "joke", I hope it dies a slow, painful, non-medicated death.

“It demands great spiritual resilience not to hate the hater whose foot is on your neck, and an even greater miracle of perception and charity not to teach your child to hate.”
- James Arthur Baldwin

Tuesday, April 7, 2009

The Gum Standard

At 5:30 this morning, I awoke to,


I bolted up in bed.

“What?!?!?” I responded to some small child I couldn’t yet see.

“I wan a piece a gum.”

Henry. Henry loves gum. He’s obsessed with it. He’s not yet three and can hold a piece of gum under his tongue while drinking a full glass of milk. Our biggest tantrums have crystallized over gum. He loves green gum (spearmint), purple gum (bubble gum), blue gum (peppermint) and yellow gum (Zebra striped). I’ve learned that I yield the most authority when I bargain with a piece of gum.

“Henry. If you go to sleep peacefully tonight, you may have a piece of gum in the morning!”

“You’ve listened so well, sweet boy, here’s a piece of gum.”

“If you don’t stop RIGHT NOW I’m taking away your gum.”

“If you continue that behavior you will have no gum for the REST OF THE DAY.”

Do I wish I could guide and control my son with a firm tone and a very hairy eyeball?


Can I?


So I barter cautiously, with meticulous attention to detail as Henry’s gum standards are both stringent and volatile.

Move over gold. I’m buying stock in Wrigley.