Thursday, October 23, 2008

Race on the PATH

The PATH train is just like the subway, only it goes fewer places, and one of those places is New Jersey. I also think it's a little cleaner, but it's got to be tough to keep a place like that clean. About 242,000 people go ride it each day. During rush hour it can be crowded, sardine-like even. This evening wasn't any different, I stood there trying to read my magazine while I snaked my arm under the shopping bag of the person standing next to me in order to hold on to the pole to keep from careening off into the lap of some lucky person with a seat, or worse to create a domino effect of falling people. Anyway, there is a stop on the way home where a large percentage of people get off and a limited number of seats typically open up. At the end of a long day people will push frantically to get off the train and others will try to be Salmon swimming up stream because they don't want to get pushed off the train and they want to get back to where the exiters came from to snag their seat. I usually coordinate where I stand with the person who I think is most likely to get off the train first so I don't have to struggle and I can snag a seat quickly. I may have had to squeeze/bump my way through a couple exiters to nab a seat, but I figure I was helping them because once I sit I am out of their way so they can leave without trying to go around me. So tonight after gaining a seat I am still reading an article about the election and about white middle class voters who probably won't vote for Obama because of race issues and I was marveling at the idea that such things still exist since it seems so ridiculous to me to care about a person's skin color. As I'm reading and contemplating how I am going to vote, I hear "What did you say?" In a very aggressive tone. So I did the furtive eyeball and I see a young black girl probably a senior in high school talking over her shoulder to a late-twenties-ish white man in a black pea coat. He repeated what he must have originally said "We're all going to the same place" as the girl and the woman she was with sat down in the seats next to me. I don't remember exactly what the girl said in response, it was something about them being rude and possibly something about them not having a good job. This is about the time when the white woman who was with the man pipes up and says "Your mother is probably on Welfare." "My mother has a good job with the state" responded the girl. The Woman responded with some comment implying that the girl was too stupid or just plain stupid, but it was really her tone that got my blood boiling. I couldn't believe the way she was throwing around racial stereotypes coupled with an argument on intelligence. As if she were so bright. The argument devolved from there into what job did the woman have and whether it was the girl's business to know and how the woman (who had a short bob haircut) should grow some hair before she started talking. Finally the woman sitting next to the girl, who I figured out at that point was her mother told her daughter to be quiet and to quit talking. Repeatedly cutting off her murmers of white people who did mumble mumble. Meanwhile the white couple is standing off in their corner mumbling about welfare and unintelligent some more sounding all righteous. The mother told her daughter to rise above petty fights like that as the girl still tried to say "I'm not that lady!" "What's her name? Who gave up her seat?" Her mother replied "Rosa Parks, and she didn't give up her seat." All through this I was just bursting. I wanted to say something, anything to show these people that an argument about a seat was petty in the first place, but in the second place to bring ridiculous racial stereotypes out as an argument was the worst kind of ignorance. I wish I could have thought of something to say, I know everyone in the train was listening. I wanted to say something that would be snarky and make people laugh but at the same time make them realize how ridiculous the racial remarks were. I also wanted to thank the mother for teaching her daughter a valuable lesson. In the end as we exited the train I told the mother to have a good night and that I hoped they ran into nicer people. Maybe there wasn't something to say that wouldn't have just made everyone more defensive and gotten me into a fight. But I really wanted to stand up for what was right. A friend said to remember what they looked like. Just in case I run into them again, anyone have any ideas? What would you have said if you were going to say something?


  1. Moving Demographics!October 23, 2008 at 6:52 PM

    Welcome to public transportation. When I was riding the bus to work everyday I heard and saw several of these incidents. The couple times I did say something it was mostly as peacemaker, stuff along the lines of "fellas, relax. There's no need to be unpleasant". Ultimately there is nothing you can say that is going to make people pay attention, people simply don't listen to strangers' unsolicited opinions, the best you can hope for is daughter listens to Mom (who, in this example, sounds like quality people). That was nice of you to say something to the mother though, hopefully it helped ease any residual anger.

    In moments like that I'm reminded of a couple things. One is the aphorism, "Don't argue with fools cuz people from a distance can't tell who is who". The other is an old song by Depeche Mode and covered by APC People Are People lyrics here:

    Don't get discouraged by the minority Ri =)

  2. You should've tried to start a PATH train singalong to En Vogue's "Free Your Mind"...

  3. I think what you did was probably the wisest choice. I can't think of anything you could've said without it just as judgemental as as the comments on welfare and short hair. Maybe the best thing you did was write this blog, maybe some one will read it and it'll make them think. Maybe the story you just told will be passed on and pointedly told to a few people who need to hear it.

    Or... you could have said "No, YOUR mom's on welfare!"


  4. I can totally bust out with that song Sarah! I vote for your solution. Lauren! welcome to the blogosphere.


Recap Defined

ri•cap 1 (rē-kāp') Pronunciation Key tr.v. ri•capped, ri•cap•ping, ri•caps
1. a summary at the end that repeats the substance of a longer discussion
2. To replace a cap or caplike covering on: recapped the camera lens.
3. Ri - a female given name: derived from Adrienne.