Wednesday, September 3, 2008

the Morning Commute

Yesterday I asked myself if I was so defensive in conversations about racial arguments because I was so afraid of actually finding the racist thoughts and tendencies in myself that I convinced myself no longer existed. I wasn’t an hour into my day before I was confronted with at least three situations where I was forced to examine the basis behind my innate reactions to other individuals.
I have to admit, as I was walking down the street listening to my iPod with my Starbucks coffee mug in hand, on my way to work, I allowed myself to feel like a “real” urbanite. A sophisticated, young, urban city person on her way to work, with her Mac in her bag. (Never mind that I can wear jeans to work…it’s all about the attitude, right?) I didn’t even make it around the block before I encountered a man evidently suffering from both mental and physical disabilities, pushing a walker and talking to himself. We made eye contact. He looked at me out of eyes that just wept sorrow, discomfort, and any and every emotion completely opposite to my self-righteous sophisticated-cool attitude. I dropped my eyes and walked more quickly across the street. I’m not sure what I was feeling – ashamed, guilty, pity, maybe. Either way, I was stripped of my urbanite attitude and left with my reality: I’m an ignorant white suburban girl posing as a yuppie while claiming to at least minimally understand racial relations. All before catching the train.
My pride toppled and my head down, I sat on the bench at the station. I was still listening to my iPod; it gave some semblance of normality and routine. Those ubiquitous white earbuds gave me away, though. The man next to me, an African American man in a white t-shirt with a backpack, asked me if I had an iPod. I said yes, and he asked me how he was supposed to get it off hold. Immediately I thought to myself, well I’m not going to pull mine out just in case this is a ploy to snatch mine from me. What? In the middle of the day, with about five other people watching our interactions? I told him about the hold button, and that he could buy one at Target or the Apple Store, and that they would fix it at the Apple Store, on Michigan. Then his train came and, thanking me, he left.
A white woman with bleached hair, a few tattoos and smelling like smoke asked me if I had a cell phone. (Why did these people assume I had these things? Well, Ashley, probably because you are carrying a leather-ish purse, which although it’s from H&M is still nice-looking, obviously listening to an iPod, carrying a Starbucks coffee mug and, finally, wearing a Polo shirt. Hmmm. And, not to mention, you are white.) She told me she would pay me a dollar if I let her use my phone for a phone call. After a moment’s hesitation, thinking again that I might not have a phone the moment I handed it to her, I said sure and that she wouldn’t have to pay me anything. She sat down next to me and used the phone, telling her friend where she was, hung up and promptly handed me back my (new) phone and said thanks very much. After my no problem, we turned in opposite directions and got on different train cars.
What caused the difference in my reactions to each of these scenarios? Why did I trust the woman more than the man? Was it because she was white, and he was black? Even more, because she was a woman and he was a man? Are these reactions normal reactions to have, being white and more affluent than the majority of the neighborhood? Is it valid to want to protect myself, and my stuff? My stuff? Is my stuff worth more than someone’s dignity? Did either of these people realize what I was thinking about them, and did it offend them? Did they expect it from me? What did they think about me? I’m ashamed to say it but I congratulated myself slightly because I at least honored these people by talking to them, and didn’t ignore them. When did I become higher on the social scale, where it was honorable of me to respond to someone who is politely addressing me? Isn’t that just human courtesy? Am I just making myself a target with my attitude, my clothes, my Starbucks, my iPod? Should I stop carrying those things, and make myself appear less affluent, or is that even more of an insult, patronizing those around me, assuming they are less affluent than me, that they are jealous of me and my white, suburban self?
Apparently race runs deeper than I could ever have imagined. I don’t want to be racist. I don’t want to hold these prejudices. I’m afraid of finding out how many I actually hold, of how racist and white I really am, of how euro-centric my worldview is…and how much I’ll have to change in order to even come close to beginning to understand what it means to strive for racial reconciliation.
As a white, affluent, suburban girl…do I even have anything to offer? Should I even attempt to understand? Is it a hopeless cause because my side has won, thus far?

A severely disabled woman got on the bus this morning. They opened the ramp for her, and from the moment the bus doors opened she chattered nonstop about her life, and how it was not going the way she wanted it to, how she didn’t have enough money for pain medication, etc. I averted my eyes because it pains me to see someone in such pain. But more importantly, it pains me to realize I never have, and probably never will, know what it is like to suffer like that. To not have enough money for necessities, not just a new whatever, but for things like medication, that I take for granted. I even realized how much of a luxury it is for me to have a Chicago Card, with unlimited transportation, that I don’t even have to pay for. I am embarrassed by this woman because I am embarrassed of myself. Of my reaction to her plight. Of my assumptions that my life is infinitely better than hers, that she has no family and no one to take care of her. That she needs someone like me to swoop in and rescue her. Of my haste to get off the bus to avoid these deep, nagging, and troublesome thoughts.

Every time I walk into Unique Thrift Store, or Aldi’s, or the Dollar Store, I feel out of place. I don’t belong there, with my Polo shirt and my H&M purse, my express jeans and my iPod. I can afford to buy these things at full price and still have money left over to help the poor. I don’t belong there. Is it fair for me to wish to save money? Am I taking things away from people who really need it? Do they feel patronized by me because I am in “their” store? Do they judge me for entering a place where I don’t belong? Do they even think this much about it? And who are “they”? I am making grand assumptions about who shops at thrift stores and Aldi’s and who I pass on the street, as if I am automatically in a better position than all of those people simply because they are…what? A minority? Poorly dressed? Even simply in the store? Why do I feel judged? Is it because of my own guilt? Do they even notice me, a na├»ve white girl walking down the street holding her purse close to her and trying to avoid eye contact but yet appear cool and confident?

When will I feel like I belong? Can I ever belong? Am I always to be judged by my own race, just as I judge others by theirs without even realizing it? Does being white, the majority, the privileged, the winner, automatically and forever exclude me from participating in the restoration of the kingdom and racial reconciliation? Are my experiences all invalid, unjust, and negatively skewed? Will I always be so defensive? I don’t want to sink back into my white, suburban affluent experience, with my iPod and Macbook, Starbucks and the mall, simply because it is comfortable and claim that “they” forced me here because “they” judged me. I don’t want to take the easy way out.


Victoria said...

that was a really great post ashley, with some fantastic insight. you're great at expressing things - and the fact that you're able to put words to these thoughts is amazing. i've definitely shared these sentiments.

Victoria said...

wait - this is priya. i have no idea why it has me signed in as victoria.