What Do You See When You Look at Her Face? How Is She Feeling Now?


Right now, not later, is the time to begin to find a way to confront racism, and bigotry when it occurs in public. Hundreds of years of abhorrent behavior do not justify another minute of it. Enforced governmental equality mandates and laws would be helpful, but until then, on a person to person basis– in our everyday lives, every single incident of bigotry needs to be fished out of the pool interaction like so many turds.

Yesterday, when a Muslim woman sat down next to a little old white lady on the subway, the old lady hesitated and then moved to a seat in the next car. From where I sat I saw the Muslim woman watch the elderly woman move to another seat. The politics of the airwaves became intensely personal.

The climate of hate that is being brewed is going to increase this sort of incident, as well as much more volatile ones. When this happened in front of me I found that did not know what to say or do. I know in my bones that I should have done something, but I do not know what. I wonder how many times a day on this train this scenario is repeated. How many more people will be relegated to this shame today?

The humiliation that the Muslim woman had been subjected to was appalling. But I hesitated to speak out. I was held back by the suspicion that any sort of public confrontation seemed as though it would further put her in the hot seat. I did not want to add to the suffering that was already underway. I wanted to scream out in disgust of the behavior of the old lady, and of the entire population of spite spewing bigoted ignoramuses.

What can be said or done that will be effective in these situations as they arrive day-to-day, subway-by-subway, and scene-by-scene?

Perhaps it would have been more effective if I had confronted the old lady. She was the perpetrator of this disgusting behavior. But what could I have said? Should I have accused her of being a racist? Of being rude? I am quite certain that she would have said she had some other reason for moving, and deny any wrongdoing. She had not said anything when she decided to switch seats, she just moved so there was nothing to “call her out on.”Creating public confrontation is risky. More than that though, there seem to layers of unseen, unspoken, and unbreakable protocol around publicly causing a scene in a casual interaction. There is a thick wall of silence around all who would sacrifice the peace of a shared moment with strangers for the sake of making a stand politically. I have never seen anyone in an informal situation effectively address someone who has made a statement (physical or verbal) of homophobia, racism, misogyny, verbal abuse, or other cross- cultural bigotry. I have occasionally seen fierce polarity flare up that resulted in escalating the conflict. But mostly I have seen “bystanders” say nothing at all.

Granted- these stories are not broachable in the 30-second window one has to address them on a moving train. The old woman on that train that so rudely changed seats developed her world view through many threads of her life over decades. Media, religion, and political discourse have framed her inside an ideology and history that incident merely illustrates. Likewise, the complexity of the layers of reasoning behind the silence of the other people on the train is patterned into the depths of the invisible rules of social behavior. Respect for the elderly, not upsetting the silence of the train, not embarrassing the Muslim woman, not inciting a group conflict in the event that others in the shared space take sides–There are thick blocks everywhere, and no authorization for sidestepping them.

In the flash of public exchange on a train, there was not time to truly meet this complexity. But, I am not sure time is what is actually needed. With more time it is possible that the situation could be analyzed and dissected from several directions. While that process may be informative, the double bind remains. The task here is to find a way, in relatively little time, to take the interaction up a level. Above the density of the interwoven reasons for not addressing the wrongness in our public sphere is another realm, where the way we approach the situation is free of these shackles.

I have seen passengers on trains publicly scold other passengers for putting their feet on the seats. But when it comes to scolding for racism there is a veil of silence. Why is this– and how can the spell be broken?

I don’t want to live in a world where people are horrible. I do not want to contribute in any way to that horror. As it is, just by living my life I am enmeshed in the web of capitalistic exploitation that trails to countless crimes against humanity and nature. Even my iPhone is a testament to my ability to overlook the hideous labor practices, international trade injustices, rare earth depletion, and advertising propaganda… I am far from innocent in this world of violent inequity. Let me be quite clear that the hubris of colonization, and all that the industrial world has wrought on the globe is visible in my living room. In that sense I am not a better person than the old woman on the train. In a sense, I have no right to say anything at all. Simultaneously I have every responsibility to do every thing I possibly can to address and heal the pain that history has left for us.

I know that saying nothing is not an option. What future lies that direction? I did not know what to say to the old lady that moved down the train to get away from the Muslim woman–  I feel the need to practice an approach that I have never seen. I am running scripts through my mind today of all the things I could have said. Because to do nothing is so deeply wrong.

On the train, at the store, in the bar, with my family and friends – no more of these little transgressions that infer the normality of disrespect can be brushed over. There is not room for discretely condoning these moments with hesitation. How shall we break through the hidden veils that silence the witnesses?

Sadly, I believe that in the coming months and years there will only be more situations like the one I witnessed on the train. Societies are dividing. Europe, Canada, and US are all sprouting right wing groups. Tolerance of intolerance is not going to do much good. Polarization with polarized groups will increase the dividing rhetoric. Shaming the old lady probably would have increased her conviction. What privilege exists in her assumptions that she can expect to behave in that way and NOT be scolded for it?

Perhaps I should have gone and sat down with her and tried to describe the pain her actions unleashed into the world. I could have explained the pain with consequences of consequences that future generations will have to live in.

I now wish I had asked her: “Can you see the pain in the woman’s face that you just humiliated?” “What do you think she is feeling?”