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.
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.