The evening before the National Teacher of the Year announcement on CBS, I travelled to New York City by train. A friend and I boarded and chose seats in the second to last car. It was a commuter train that ran several times a day. This was during rush hour, so the train was expected to be full. Several times, the conductor announced over the loudspeaker that we should ensure all seats were available at each stop so that people could sit. Of course, none of us listened.
Most of us pulled out our laptops to get some work done during the journey and virtually every person on the train had their backpacks or briefcases sitting on the empty seats next to them, including me. After the train departed, the conductor came through and checked everyone’s tickets, but never mentioned the bags on each of the seats.
At the next stop, two women got on and sat in the seats across the aisle from my friend and me. They, too, placed their bags on the empty seats next to them. Again, none of us placed our extra baggage in the overhead bin, despite the repeated instructions on the loudspeaker.
This time, when the conductor came through the car to check tickets, he stopped at the two women and told them to remove their bags from the extra seats and put them in the overhead bin. He did not ask anyone else to do the same. What was only difference between the rest of the people in our car and these two women? They were black.
Both women expressed displeasure with being called out when none of the other passengers were asked to remove their bags. As an observer, it appeared to be a clear case of discrimination based on race—something the women voiced, as well. The reaction of the conductor further confirmed this assertion, as he refused to address his bias. Throughout the next couple of stops, each time the conductor would come through the car, one of the women would explain again his display of discrimination and ask for his name. Each time, he would get more visibly upset and would refuse, avoiding eye contact and grumbling under his breath, his emotions clearly escalating. After a couple passes through, others of us began to request his name as well, supporting the women, as the conductor had clearly been wrong in his actions.
Finally, after several passes through the car he stopped. We noticed his nametag turned toward his stomach so none of us could see it. He said, “If you are going to take my name, I need your names, too.” We all questioned his behavior and asked why he would need their names, but he would respond to none of us. He forced the women to give him their names, copying the names from their tickets, while still refusing to give his own name, then he stormed off out of the car.
When he returned the final time, he brought a police officer. The women began to explain what happened, and without listening to them, the officer asked them to go with him. That’s when I increased my involvement. I raised my hands and asked the officer to please hold on—that there was no need for the women to go with him because the conductor was the person at fault in this situation and who had also escalated it. The officer reiterated that the conductor had made several announcements concerning placing bags in the overhead bin and passengers were expected to comply. I motioned to my own backpack and explained that the problem was not in the rule, but in the conductor calling out only these two women, who also happened to be the only people of color in the train car. If the conductor had been serious about the rule, he would have instructed all of us to put our bags away, but he did not. The women then took the conductor’s name, finally. The police officer reiterated the rule and left without further incident.
This unfortunate situation escalated, not because of the women calling out the conductor’s blatant racism, but because he refused to recognize the impact of his actions. At the end of the encounter, the conductor did mumble under his breath that his intention was not to discriminate. It fell far short of an apology, and he did not return to our car for the rest of the trip.
This is a problem. Regardless of our intention in our words and actions, it is the impact that matters. If something we do or say negatively impacts another person or group of people, it doesn’t matter what we intended. It is our responsibility to recognize our impact and to apologize.
If the conductor had simply said, “I’m sorry.” If he’d recognized how his actions could have been interpreted as discriminatory based on the women’s race and apologized, the situation would not have escalated at all. It’s possible the women would not have wanted to take his name to report his behavior. Instead, he dug his heels in and refused to reflect on his own behavior.
So many situations like this one happen every day. It doesn’t take much searching to find countless stories of implicit or explicit bias, like the Starbucks incidents. These situations escalated not because of the victims calling out the racism, but because of the white people perpetrating the racism who do not recognize the impact of their actions and, who frequently, double-down by calling the police.
All of us act in discriminatory ways. It’s an unfortunate and inevitable part of human nature. Instead of reacting defensively and denying the action, challenge yourself to recognize it. Recognize the impact on the other person or persons and apologize. It’s that simple.
If you don’t like being called a racist. Don’t be racist. When you mess up and discriminate, just say you’re sorry and be more cognizant next time. Learn from your mistakes.
Recognize your impact regardless of your intent. Say, “I’m sorry,” mean it, and be better. It’s that simple.
Thanks for illustrating the subtleties of unconscious racism.
Thank you for this story, Mandy. I had a similar experience in an airport in London. All the passengers were there because the long-haul flights that connect through London overnight tend to be cheap. Because of this most of the passengers waiting were from North Africa. We were put through the ringer repeatedly being herded, harassed, interrogated,etc. throughout our overnight stay but the immigration/security officers were even more wildly disrespectful to our fellow passengers without white skin. The officials were talking about people’s immigration paperwork openly in public, expressing doubt at people’s legal entry to the airport, etc. We were locked in a room with the bright flourescent lights and benches designed so we couldn’t lay down for 8 hours. There were no food facilities and we weren’t allowed to leave. We were treated like criminals when just passing through an airport onto a connecting flight but I cannot imagine what it is like for those North African passengers who decide to stay in London, or other parts of Europe or the U.S. only to be unfairly targeted and questioned. To be harassed, suspected and disrespected on the daily when trying to live the life they imagined when they arrived. When some passengers questioned their targeting of specific passengers the London staff were immediately escalated emotionally. They were offended, defensive, dismissive and hurt. They looked to each other for reassurance, asking their colleagues “They’re saying this is racist, but I’m not racist.” They were so unable to see their own bias and so quick to defend themselves that I could see what was happening and knew there was nothing I or anyone else could say at that point to help them see it. That’s when I hope that they go home that night or later that month or year and chew on that feeling. Why did someone tell you you were being bias/racist/xenophobic? I believe most people who are used to being in power need to digest that and come to transformative conclusions about it in private, away from the emotionally charged situation itself. But if we stand by and say nothing they will never be afforded that chance to reflect. Cognitive dissonance is painful but it is the only way towards change in someone’s mind and heart.