Wednesday, January 04, 2006

I was riding in the bus the other day to an American Orthodox Vespers service with my roomie, Ben. As we got on the 16 to downtown Saint Paul, we were again reminded of the amazing variety of people that frequent the mass transportation system in the Twin Cities. I can’t even venture a guess to how many different ethnicities were aboard that bus, but – my unabashed love for public buses notwithstanding – it was once again nice to be in a place where white people were definitely the minority. I don’t know if I always look for a chance to feel like I’m back in Africa, but I definitely enjoy the feeling, however muted it may be, of being somewhere besides where I am normally. Somewhere that I think is a much better indicator of what heaven must look like.

This nice little Hallmark moment I was having in my head was short-lived. I sat in the only seat I found, and heard a lady behind me cough. She turned to her friend – who was sitting directly behind me – and said, in a voice hard to ignore, “Where did all these white people come from? My daughter says they ride the bus now-a-days, but I couldn’t believe it myself.” Her friend silently nodded.

I glanced up at Ben, who was diagonally in front of me. I don’t think he heard the comment, as he continued to read his book. Great, I thought. I just know if she keeps talking, I’m not going to be able to pretend I’m reading Harry Potter anymore. And sure enough, she kept talking about this huge influx of white people on the minority-controlled bus system.

Why should I be singled out because I’m white? a voice inside me asked. I’m familiar with this voice: it’s the “middle-class, straight white guy” in me that continues to act in socially predetermined ways, ways I never asked for but was raised with nonetheless. Another voice quickly jumps to my aide, pointing out that this is the way people of color consistently get treated in their daily lives. I had the option of asking a friend to drive me to the church instead of taking the bus; most people seated around me rarely have that option. I feel white in the bus – everywhere else I get feel “normal”; the all-pervasive ‘neutral’ race. The boring “Caucasian” checkbox in the application. White.

So there I am, being white, thinking that I will not be able to read anymore. When I get nervous or anxious in any way, my first resort is humor. I’m almost convinced that my humor in these situations is not nearly as funny as I envision it to be, but I rarely regret what I don’t say…I opened my mouth. I turned to look at the woman, widened my eyes, and asked in an incredulous tone, “I’m WHITE??!!??”

She bore into me like my third grade teacher after she came back from a vacation and had a bad report of me from the substitute. (Who was I to know that we weren’t supposed to be smartasses that day?) She raised one eyebrow, and was definitely not smiling. My humor depends on people smiling and laughing in nice, jovial-like ways. Not so this time. “Well, whatever it is you people call yourselves.”

And he misses a defender….he shoots….HE SCORES! I turned back around, trying to fake a smile, and continued awkwardly pretending to be enamored with my book until we exited. She got off first, however, and gave me the same piercing glare as she walked past me. I told Ben about it on the next bus. I felt crappy for the interaction, but it never really is just one thing.

Is this liberal time? No. It’s just a story, with no clean or happy ending. No moral to make myself feel better. No socially-relevant statement to explain what took place on the 16 bus. It just is what it is.


At 6:20 PM , Anonymous Katie said...

Amazingly enough, it's fairly easy to feel the same way, obvious for your ethnicity, in a junior high math class in central Texas and, I would hazard a guess, in any class at a central Texas public school, really, provided it's not "honors" or "GT" or the like. It started when I was attending one of those public schools. It happens more often now that I'm on the subbing list. It's a bit awkward to realize that you are the only person of fair skin in the entire classroom.

At 12:29 PM , Anonymous Caitlin said...

Very interesting. Although, I probably would have taken you literally/sarcastically too and given you a similar response. My thought is that she probably felt you deserved as much harassment as she gets in other places. When you're rejected from somewhere, you want to claim elsewhere for yourself, even if it is the public bus.


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