A comfortable, and yet infuriating journey

Last night I found myself on a very crowded train– people standing in the aisles, sitting out by the doors, etc. I resigned myself to an uncomfortable journey. Then I noticed a perfectly good seat, unoccupied. It was next to a very nice black man, who turned out to be a lovely travel companion.

Tell me again about our post-racial society.

UPDATE: Anne has provided me with a link to the column I was thinking of the whole time.

46 thoughts on “A comfortable, and yet infuriating journey

  1. Wow. I thought the UK was well past that kind of thing. I’m sure he was uncomfortable until you sat down, and relieved to have someone like you as a seat mate.

  2. That’s totally weird. I am 100% sure that would NOT happen in any of the US or Canadian cities I have lived in. This is partly because white folks are a minority on public transportation here, I guess. (I am routinely the only white person on one of the two busses I take to work, and then I transfer to one that is about 1/3-1/2 white but only because it terminates at Georgetown University.) But also the public transportation types are just way, way past that crap in North American cities.

  3. I have heard of that in the States, about people on a communter train into NYC. I *think* it was in the New Yorker, or perhaps the NY Times.

    Rebecca, I take it you don’t do the stockbroker special.

  4. j, it is great to see you commenting again.

    Jender, it would be so interesting to hear from him. He must have understood what was going on. It does make one sad to try to think one’s way into his perspective, however faulty the attempt msy be.

  5. As far as the U.S is concerned, I think it depends on where you are located that determines if it’s mostly black or white, hispanic, or asian passengers on any given bus.

  6. I’m sorry, I have no idea why this is indicative of racism on the part of the other passengers (and therefore your own moral superiority for being willing to sit by him).

    All you saw was an empty seat on a train. Maybe someone had just vacated it and no one had noticed yet. Or the ones who did notice didn’t take the seat because they were about to get off at the next stop. How many times have you seen a seat next to a white person on a crowded bus or train? I have seen that dozens of times.

  7. Anne: I have no idea what the stockbroker special is, but surely whatever it is I have never done it and hope I never will!

    I’m gonna need some convincing that on public transit in any big city in North America, a seat would go untaken for a long time just because of the race of the person next to it. I am sure there are some racists who wouldn’t take the seat, and I know for a fact there are bat shit crazy urine soaked people on the bus who happen to be black who no one wants to sit next to regardless of race, but I just don’t buy it that mere race could keep a city public transit seat empty here. There just don’t exist big cities white enough, with white enough public transit systems, for this to happen even if ALL the white people were open racists. Someone above says they’ve seen it in Chicago, but again, I am just incredulous; I have taken Chicago public transit and there are, to say the least, always tons of black folks on there. Is the claim that they are too self-hating to take seats next to one another?

    As for me, I’ve spent time in a bunch of cities with mass transit in my day but my current commute is on the Washington DC bus system. I get some funny looks now and again for being a white girl on the 54 bus but people sit next to me all the same.

    I have no idea what goes on in any suburbs (and very much hope to keep it that way for life), and I made no claims about the suburbs, so if the stockbroker special is some suburban thingy then I am totally agnostic :)

  8. A few years ago there was an article in the NY Times about how, on the Long Island Railroad, people would often stand rather than sit in the middle seat of a 3-seat row if they didn’t know the other passengers. (The trains often have 3 seats on one side and two on the other.) Apparently, the isle would often have lots of people standing while several middle seats went unused. (If there are 5 people in the isle between you and a seat in the middle you’d gladly sit in, you might well end up standing, too.) There was no indication that race had much to do with this, if anything at all. Supposedly the LIRR was considering moving to trains w/ fewer seats- to rows of 2 seats, rather than one of 2 and one of 3, because this was so common. This, along w/ my own quite significant experience riding public transportation in a big city, leads me to believe that people’s seat-sitting preferences are often complex, and even if a bit irrational, not always transparent.

  9. Often the last seat on my train goes unoccupied. I think it is similar to the last biscuit phenomenon: no one wants to be seen to take the last seat. What you saw may be racism and may not.

    Anecdote ≠ data.

  10. I think that racism is a really bad thing. Because it’s a really bad thing, saying or implying that a person or group of people is racist, is a serious accusation. Serious accusations should only be made with good evidence. The fact that you found an empty seat next to a black man on a train is not good evidence of the racism of your fellow passengers (in light of what has already been said by Anon, Rebecca Kukla, Matt, etc.). Therefore, I find the implication that your fellow passengers are racist (and that you are morally superior) highly objectionable.

  11. I misremembered some of the details, but this was the piece I was thinking about, fron the NY Times, op ed, oct 6, 2010:

    The Seat Not Taken

    By JOHN EDGAR WIDEMAN
    AT least twice a week I ride Amtrak’s high-speed Acela train from my home in New York City to my teaching job in Providence, R.I. The route passes through a region of the country populated by, statistics tell us, a significant segment of its most educated, affluent, sophisticated and enlightened citizens.

    Over the last four years, excluding summers, I have conducted a casual sociological experiment in which I am both participant and observer. It’s a survey I began not because I had some specific point to prove by gathering data to support it, but because I couldn’t avoid becoming aware of an obvious, disquieting truth.

    Almost invariably, after I have hustled aboard early and occupied one half of a vacant double seat in the usually crowded quiet car, the empty place next to me will remain empty for the entire trip.

    I’m a man of color, one of the few on the train and often the only one in the quiet car, and I’ve concluded that color explains a lot about my experience. Unless the car is nearly full, color will determine, even if it doesn’t exactly clarify, why 9 times out of 10 people will shun a free seat if it means sitting beside me.

    Giving them and myself the benefit of the doubt, I can rule out excessive body odor or bad breath; a hateful, intimidating scowl; hip-hop clothing; or a hideous deformity as possible objections to my person. Considering also the cost of an Acela ticket, the fact that I display no visible indications of religious preference and, finally, the numerous external signs of middle-class membership I share with the majority of the passengers, color appears to be a sufficient reason for the behavior I have recorded.

    Of course, I’m not registering a complaint about the privilege, conferred upon me by color, to enjoy the luxury of an extra seat to myself. I relish the opportunity to spread out, savor the privacy and quiet and work or gaze at the scenic New England woods and coast. It’s a particularly appealing perk if I compare the train to air travel or any other mode of transportation, besides walking or bicycling, for negotiating the mercilessly congested Northeast Corridor. Still, in the year 2010, with an African-descended, brown president in the White House and a nation confidently asserting its passage into a postracial era, it strikes me as odd to ride beside a vacant seat, just about every time I embark on a three-hour journey each way, from home to work and back.

    I admit I look forward to the moment when other passengers, searching for a good seat, or any seat at all on the busiest days, stop anxiously prowling the quiet-car aisle, the moment when they have all settled elsewhere, including the ones who willfully blinded themselves to the open seat beside me or were unconvinced of its availability when they passed by. I savor that precise moment when the train sighs and begins to glide away from Penn or Providence Station, and I’m able to say to myself, with relative assurance, that the vacant place beside me is free, free at last, or at least free until the next station. I can relax, prop open my briefcase or rest papers, snacks or my arm in the unoccupied seat.

    But the very pleasing moment of anticipation casts a shadow, because I can’t accept the bounty of an extra seat without remembering why it’s empty, without wondering if its emptiness isn’t something quite sad. And quite dangerous, also, if left unexamined. Posters in the train, the station, the subway warn: if you see something, say something.

  12. I feel almost embarrassed to point this out, since I might be missing a joke. But the claim made by “someone” above (viz., “sk”) was nothing like “[blacks] are too self-hating to take seats next to one another.” Rather, the tacit claim was that some whites in Chicago are conspicuously unwilling to take seats next to (apparently sane and clean) blacks. But I fear I missed a joke, since I have no idea how the lack of U.S. “big cities white enough, with white enough public transit systems” bears on the tacit claim.

    What kind of proof would be required to demonstrate to “incredulous” commenters that sk often enough has witnessed what she reports having witnessed–or, more generally, that blacks in the U.S. continue to experience various forms of ill treatment, from petty to extreme, “just because” of race (from whites who don’t take themselves to be racists)? And how could a self-described “white girl” possibly be anywhere close to “100% sure” that white “public transportation types” in the U.S. are “just way, way into” the post-racial era? Strange.

  13. @Anonymous 2:11

    The human mind is a funny thing. It has a very well documented tendency to notice bad things (or suspected bad things) than good ones (there has been speculation that this is due to our evolutionary history, but I’ll refrain from evolutionary psychological speculation because I know that that is not well thought of here). For example, it seems, when I think back over my own experiences, that women’s restrooms are much more frequently out of order than men’s restrooms. Should I believe this? Absolutely not. The only reason that it might seem to be the case that this is so is that, as a woman, I only really notice when women’s restrooms are out of order and not when men’s restrooms are out of order. So too in the case of empty seats next to black people. Even if I can think of a whole bunch of times where I saw an empty seat next to a black person on a crowded train that would be incredibly weak evidence of racism precisely because I would be more likely to remember that than to remember finding an empty seat next to a white person. This is one of the reasons that scientists like to use data and not just their own fickle impressions.

  14. I can very easily remember the old days of British rail, where seating was divided up in separate compartments, each with two benches facing each other. I think the benches were supposed to seat four; in any case, many of us would try to puff ourselves up in order to indicate to those passing in the corridors that there were no more seats in our compartment.

    I don’t think it ever worked on a crowded train. The compartment door would open, something vaguely polite was said, and one was then stuck for an hour or much more, painfully aware of the contours of the thighs on either side.

    The new open carriages avoid the deep thigh connection, but a decision to stand uo for some time, thus foregoing a place on which one could put the lovely tea available, really needs explaining.

    Jender seems to me to have it right. Those who see her as making a baseless claim to morally superiority need to pay heed to our rules and policies. It is against them to settle first for the most negstive interpretation. I can’t think why anyone does.

  15. “It is against them to settled first for the most negstive interpretation. I can’t think why anyone does.”

    Come again?

  16. For a while I regularly rode a bus between Philadelphia and NY City. I’d usually ride alone, and as I have modestly wide shoulders, it’s more comfortable for me to not sit next to someone. So, I’d often try to get on early (easy to do if you registered for the web site when you bought tickets), and sit on an isle seat (which I prefer anyway.) I never tried to suggest the seat was taken, or put my things on it, but just sat and read my book w/o looking up. Usually, by doing this, I’d get the seat next to me free if it was possible. (People were not allowed to ride standing up, so if the bus was sold out, as it sometimes was, it wouldn’t be possible.) I’m a normal looking white guy, and the bus would have a lot of different sorts of people on it, but inevitably, I’d be one of the last people sat with. This makes me think the above story is probably not as strong of evidence as one might think, and that these situations are not as transparent as people might here think at first. Maybe some people really do fear sitting next to black people, or to men they don’t know (another possibility not discussed here, but that seems possible to me.) But I’d hate to draw this conclusion, especially about any particular person, from the data we have here.

  17. There was a typo I think I have caught. Still, I apologize for the murky way I put it.

    Discourse on this blog is subject to a constraint: Be Nice.

    Assuming a poster is trying to present herself as morally sperior is a violation of the rules. I think it has other faults, but the first is enough to get your comment deleted.

  18. Well, this discussion starts with Jender’s observations, and I don’t want to substitute mine for hers. So let me just remark that I do think racism has a very strong presence in the us and the uk. Perhaps if a train is not bursting at the seams, an enpty seat does not call for a special explanation. But when it is, and we don’t see racism as a very obvious hypothesis, I think that a mistake is being made.

    I quoted a story from a black man below. I think we would misunderstand our society if we saw this as anomalous. Perhaps worse, we’d not be equipped to take in the much more subtle ways in which black people are still outsiders.

  19. No one said Jender *tried* to present herself as morally superior. They said that her statements *implied* her moral superiority. Similarly, if I say, “everyone in this room other than me is a vicious murderer” that statement implies that I am morally superior to the rest of the people in the room, regardless of my intent in making that statement. The same is true if I say “everyone in this room (or on this train) other than me is a racist.”

  20. There’s a certain phenomenon you sometimes see among idealogues (no, I’m not saying anyone here is an idealogue): they have a certain broad narrative about history or the way our society presently is, and because of they hold that narrative so firmly, they are ready to accept cases as falling in line with that narrative on very scant evidence. To take an extreme example, conspiracy theorist and radio talk show host Alex Jones thinks the New World Order controls the world and is planning on killing virtually all of us. He then takes all sorts of individual cases as evidence of this on laughably scant evidence. The problem is that it is hard to respond to him because whenever you question his evidence, he responds by citing broader considerations about the New World Order (“oh come on, everybody knows that the New World Order controls the financial markets! This must be their work!”) instead of responding with evidence about the actual specific case in question.

    I worry that something similar is going on here. There have been legitimate concerns raised about the warrant for the charge of racism in this case. I think a satisfactory response to those concerns would have to do more than just deal with generalities about the prevalence of racism in our society. Those generalities may be true, but it does not mean that this particular case is a case of racism.

  21. Well, this happened to me just earlier today, and I’m a white guy. I was on a very packed bus with the only available seat (as far as I could tell) being next to mine, and yet it took at least two stops before someone sat down in it.

    I don’t really think it’s so strange. Speaking for myself, if there is only one seat available and a bunch of people are standing, I am not going to take the seat.

  22. This thread is bizarre–setting aside Jender’s self-congratulatory tone.

    Nowhere in the brief, anecdotal post is there any explicit or implicit charge that the other non-black train riders are “racist.” If that’s the charge you’re imagining, your own anxieties or resentments are showing.

    The post simply suggests that a good number of non-black train riders seem to suffer from racial bias or racial discomfort. The point is that we clearly don’t live in a “post-racial” society. Wideman’s NYT Op-Ed said as much. Of course, that’s just one accomplished black guy’s deeply reflective report about his own experience.

  23. Anne– thanks for the Wideman column link. It is the reason that I made the interpretation that I did, but I had no idea where I’d seen it, and googling didn’t help me to find it. so I didn’t post it. Anonymous– I worried a lot about whether to post at all, fearing that I would sound self-congratulatory. I decided to do it because I think it’s important that white people as well as black people remark on these sorts of things (just as it’s important for men to speak up about all-male conferences). I tried to write it without a self-congratulatory tone, and I’m sorry that I failed.

  24. Seating in public spaces is a funny thing. Sometimes there’s only one empty seat, and for no apparent reason, no one approaches it, as if the very fact that it’s empty scares people away, as if the fact that it’s empty “tells” people that there is something wrong with sitting there, either with the person who is sitting besides the empty seat or with the seat itself, say, dirt or worse.

    That is, people take their cue from the behavior of others and not from examining the seat itself or from looking closely at the person sitting besides the empty seat.

    In that situation, the person who is willing to go against the crowd, to break the spell or the taboo, gains a more comfortable trip for him or herself.

    I’m not saying that that was the problem in the above case, but I’ve seen it happen often in public transportation or waiting rooms.

  25. I’m extremely puzzled by the idea that jender’s comment is self-congratulatory. How could sitting next to a black person be something one congratulates anyone about?

  26. Indeed. So why stress that the black guy one sat next to proved to be “very nice” and “a lovely travel companion”? There is no broader reason here to call attention to one’s openness to engaging with the guy. Had he been politely indifferent, the main point–that conspicuous white avoidance of blacks is prima facie evidence that we aren’t in a post-racial society–would have been no less legitimate.

  27. The title itself suggests moral superiority. That the ride was infuriating suggests that the author was able to explain the availability of the seat in terms of racial bias.

    There have been several non-anecdottal scientific explanations for the ‘last remaining seat’ phenomenom already given here in this thread and that do not attribute racism or racial bias to anyone. So, if we’re reasonable critical thinkers we now have a few options:

    1. Believe that race played a significant reason in the availability of the seat
    2. Believe that people will refuse to sit in an empty seat because they find its availability to indicate a problem with the seat or the people around (which is far more likely to indicate a problem with odor not with race)
    3. Believe that people refuse to sit in the last remaining seat out of politeness or a wish not to be seen as greedy for taking it.
    4. Other implicit biases (avoidance of unknown males was suggested)

    Given the options I’d say we have the LEAST evidence for #1 and yet the author of the post jumped straight to #1 as the most likely explanation and then implied a judgment of the rest of the passengers (they are infuriating) based on that.

    That’s bad reasoning.

  28. The title itself suggests moral superiority. That the ride was infuriating suggests that the author was able to explain the availability of the seat in terms of racial bias.

    There have been several non-anecdottal scientific explanations for the ‘last remaining seat’ phenomenom already given here in this thread and that do not attribute racism or racial bias to anyone. So, if we’re reasonable critical thinkers we now have a few options:

    1. Believe that race played a significant reason in the availability of the seat
    2. Believe that people will refuse to sit in an empty seat because they find its availability to indicate a problem with the seat or the people around (which is far more likely to indicate a problem with odor not with race)
    3. Believe that people refuse to sit in the last remaining seat out of politeness or a wish not to be seen as greedy for taking it.
    4. Other implicit biases (avoidance of unknown males was suggested)

    Given the options I’d say we have the LEAST evidence for #1 and yet the author of the post jumped straight to #1 as the most likely explanation and then implied a judgment of the rest of the passengers (they are infuriating) based on that.

    That’s bad reasoning.

  29. I’m really completely mystified by the charges of “self-congratulatory” tone. But perhaps this is yet another example of tone being as much a contribution of the reader as a construct of the author.

    Anyway. . .You’ll notice that the post doesn’t accuse anyone of racism. Nor does Jender say anything to the effect of “and then I knew that all these people had racist biases, and that’s why they weren’t taking the empty seat”. The story of the empty seat is told. This particular empty seat is part of a pattern of casual avoidance behaviors that the author has observed. The author finds this pattern – *and particular instances of it* – infuriating.

    Are there other, innocuous explanations of why the seat is empty? Of course there are. And I don’t think Jender – in writing this post – takes herself to be ruling these alternative explanations out. Again, patterns are important here. If you see an isolated instance of a black man being treated differently from those around him, you can easily attribute it to social situations being funny, unpredictable things. But if you begin to notice patterns of black men routinely being treated differently – avoided, looked at askance, mistrusted, etc – then the unconnected, innocuous explanations no longer look as good qua explanations of the more general phenomenon. And then you’re quite likely to find individual instances of this pattern infuriating *even if*, for all you know, that particular instance is harmless happenstance.

    Here’s a related example. I’m often deeply frustrated by the half-assed efforts that public buildings make at accessibility. Once you become aware that this is a problem, you start to notice it everywhere. So when I see a particular instance of a wheelchair ramp crammed around the back of a building, crates and boxes blocking a ramp, accessibility routes that force disabled people to tramp alone through the basement, etc, I get mad. I get really mad. In all those cases, there could very well be plausible, harmless explanations for why that building is that way on that particular day. And no, I don’t bother to eliminate all these alternatives before I get mad. My anger doesn’t stem from thinking “Wow, these people are so obviously ableist”. It stems, rather, from being reminded of a continual pattern of exclusion and othering that disabled people face. Any (or at least many) particular instances of that pattern are perfectly explainable in ways that don’t involve ableism. But it’s highly implausible that the existence of the pattern as a whole isn’t the result of ableism (even if some instances are not).

    Jender can – quite justifiably – be angered by what she witnessed on the train without having ruled out all non-racist explanations and without assuming that everyone who didn’t take the seat was acting on racist biases.

  30. Obviously, I disagree. The idea that there have been ” several non-anecdottal scientific explanations ” given is simply wrong. None of the explanations have been much more than conjecture (that is, the offered hypothesis is conjecture), and noticeably absent has been any attempt to fit the explanations offered to the actual situation; namely, a crowded British train. The idea that a woman with implicit bias would not sit next to a man on a crowded British train has the problem that the train itself will be full of counter-examples. There are also quite distinct factors at work in that situation, including how usual train travel is.

    There are two factors that are particularly worrying to me. (1) this is a blog that is very often concerned with oppression and the mechanisms there of. I cannot think of any such blog where the language of moral outrage is not common. When that language is common, it carries very different implications regarding whether one is congratulating oneself or not. Because of this, it seems to me likely that some people commenting here are not used to the language common on such blogs. An alternative would be that they find such language from women particularly troubling. (2) any Black person I have ever hear address the issue takes themselves to experience daily exclusionary behavior from whites; that ups the probability of racism as an explanation. It is disturbing to see racism treated as simply an alternative hypothesis, rather than a fact pervading black people’s lives.

    It is the pervasiveness of racism that was the point of jender’s post, and since that seems almost entirely lost, I’m going to leave the post and this topic alone and this discussion.

  31. And yet what I and others are trying to call attention to are the cognitive biases that are certainly present in the very noticing of patterns and that works against views like this:

    “Are there other, innocuous explanations of why the seat is empty? Of course there are. And I don’t think Jender – in writing this post – takes herself to be ruling these alternative explanations out. Again, patterns are important here. If you see an isolated instance of a black man being treated differently from those around him, you can easily attribute it to social situations being funny, unpredictable things. But if you begin to notice patterns of black men routinely being treated differently – avoided, looked at askance, mistrusted, etc – then the unconnected, innocuous explanations no longer look as good qua explanations of the more general phenomenon. And then you’re quite likely to find individual instances of this pattern infuriating *even if*, for all you know, that particular instance is harmless happenstance. ”

    It isn’t that the explanations are conjecture, of course they are. It is that there is conjecture all around. You argue that the implicit racism is more likely because of patterns of recognition of bias but that only spreads the problem around. We are apt to better remember, and then over-inflate the probability of, these kinds of events. That is, we have cognitive biases that make us see patterns and connections between events that are not so connected.

    We tend to only remember, for example, the cases where we switch lanes in traffic and it works out badly for us. We then exclaim “why does this always happen to me?” When in fact we are all really bad at remembering accurately the ratio of all these sorts of situations. This data was brought in the thread, it is a robust psychological fact about us. Isn’t it at least as likely that jender is simply not recalling all of the non-racial instances of ‘last remaining seat’ behavior and therefore over-attributing this to a pattern? I certainly think so and I have more than mere conjecture on my side. I not only have some basic psychological data but, furthermore, also the testimony of many others here in the thread of patterns of similar behavior that were clearly not racially motivated at all. If you want to discount those instances then you can do so but not without argument.

  32. whoa.
    thanks, anon 2:11. i think your point about what would kind of proof would be required is a salient one, especially given what annejjacobson rightly calls the bizarre tone of the intervening conversation. it (the tone) reminds me of what professor black woman (formerly – maybe currently? of oh no a woc phd) used to call “anti-racist racism,” the idea that if you see and speak out against racism, you yourself are the racist. it moves the basis of the discussion away from structural or everyday racism to motive or intent. that is, by questioning whether racial bias is involved in any situation, one is claiming that those involved are simply bad people, and we must have enough evidence such that anyone would agree that they are simply bad people. this way, the only “racism” we talk about is of the neo-nazi variety, and we can blithely go on our merry way, secure in the purity of our motives. if one is more concerned with the accusation of racism, and not the actual existence of racism, i humbly submit that this is not an anti-racist stance.

  33. Sometimes racism is so hard to believe that one does not believe it (denial), but it’s there.

    Many years ago in a liberal university setting, I was conversing in a café with several white intellectuals, whom I did not know. There was a black student at our table and when I tried to include him in the conversation, the whites made not so subtle efforts to steer the conversation away from him.

    I suggested that the others give the black fellow a chance to speak, but they denied that they were not giving him a chance to speak, even though it was apparent that they were.

    Finally, I turned to the black man and asked him what I did want to have to ask him, since, as I said, we were all supposedly progressive people and it seemed almost in bad taste to suggest that any of us could be racist: do you think that they are being racist?

    Yes, he answered.

    I suggested that we converse separately at another table and we then did.

    Perhaps I am congratulating myself and if so, so be it.

  34. sk:

    Yes, excellent point. If one actually inquires into the basis of charges of racism, that person is simply not anti-racist. Anti-racism requires that we blindly accept any and every charge of racism.

  35. The thing about institutional racism or implicit racial bias is that it can be shown to exist in general (we can provide statistics that show a statistically significant exclusion of one group by another) but we cannot show that it existed in any particular instance especially when there are multiple competing and plausible explanations for what could (or could not) have happened. Now if we have many many anecdotes from many different people converging on similar facts then we might have something more interesting going on.

    One of the problems with the original post is that it seems to work backward from these facts. We cannot, from one observation, conclude much of anything about living in a post-racial world. Why don’t we, just as easily, conclude from Matt’s post that there is implicit bias against white males on the buses in Philadelphia? Both are anecdotes about not having people sit next them on buses despite those buses being full. Unless we’re already convinced that race was responsible the two cases seem identical.

  36. Here is a quote from Touré that seems relevant to me: “Modern racism is a much more subtle, nuanced, slippery beast than its father or grandfather were. It has ways of making itself seem to not exist, which can drive you crazy trying to prove its existence sometimes.” (For more, see this blog post and the Atlantic piece to which it links: http://loveisntenough.com/2011/09/26/excerpts-from-the-most-racist-thing-that-ever-happened-to-me/?utm_source=feedburner&utm_medium=feed&utm_campaign=Feed%3A+loveisntenough+%28Love+Isn%27t+Enough%29.)

    I did not see Jender’s post as self-congratulatory, and I agree with her that it is important for white people, not just people of color, to notice and mention these events when they occur, and to raise the possibility that racism or one of its close relatives is involved. If some specific, named people were mentioned, it would be important to be very cautious here; but since Jender’s post just made an observation about the behavior of a bunch of unnamed, unidentifiable people on a train, it does not strike me as wrong to suggest that their behavior may have been the result of racism (possibly implicit and unconscious).

    I have been following news stories related to race very closely for the past few years, and have come to the conclusion that denying that racism exists, and proposing alternate explanations for possibly racist actions and events, is a central national pastime of many white people in the US.

    Yes, it’s possible that it was a mere coincidence, or that there was some other explanation for the fact that the only available seat on a train packed to the gills was next to a black man. Of any isolated event that is not completely egregious, it is typically possible to construct some alternate explanation to explain away the appearance of racism. But should we stop there? If we don’t make the relevant observations and consider the possibility that racism (or, again, one of its close relatives) is involved, we make real racism – pervasive, yet often subtle patterns that affect the daily lived experience of people of color – invisible to ourselves.

  37. I don’t really want to get into an argument, but I just want to clarify that I certainly never meant to say anyone or any culture was ‘post racial’. I was just making the really mundane point that all the city public transportation systems I’ve used in North America are mostly used by people of color. So white people need to get over discomfort traveling with people of color or they won’t find *any* seat on the bus, typically. If anything, taking public trans is sort of coded as non-white here … I know white folks who avoid public transportation and this always makes me suspect racism. But the idea that you could avoid being squished up next to black folks on the systems I’ve used is just absurd. I was surprised it was different in the UK. I wasn’t making any deep point about how enlightened anyone was – just a really mundane point about who takes city buses here in North America. Like I said, I make no claims about the suburbs. I take it that no end of creepy racist stuff goes on out there.

  38. the claim you made was not that white people *need* to get over discomfort traveling with people of color, but rather that white people – at least those who take public transportation – already *have*. many of us spoke to the contrary, and argued that racism or racial bias or whatevs was probably involved. i take your point about the fact that public transportation in big cities is often racially coded: for instance, there is often a difference between who takes the train and who takes the bus. chicago is an intensely segregated city – most white people never travel south of roosevelt ave – such that it is possible to take the train and sometimes the bus and never “have” to sit next to a black person. riding the red line the length of the city is an education in racial geography.
    also, what sheri said.

  39. Given the Chicago mention, I cannot resist recommending American Pharaoh: Mayor Richard J. Daley – His Battle for Chicago and the Nation, by Cohen and Taylor. A gripping read! A study in how a few powerful people can make a city more segregated than it was.

  40. Reading the story above, one could go many directions with it. Being a black man who takes the metro train daily to get to work in the city, I have my own personal opinions. It pretty much happens to me everyday but what can you do? Walking down the streets to get to my job is even more of an event and seeing what I’ve seen is just a part of life. While no one can really prove that modern racism exist, it is still here. I just won’t spend the rest of my life trying to prove who I really am to anyone.

  41. Anonymous, thanks for adding to the support of an important point. I am sorry, though, that your experience does confirm it.

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