Coming face to face with racism
During the election campaign when the county court clerk, or county clerk employee, called FLOTUS [First Lady of the United States] Michelle Obama “an ape in high heels”, I was deeply hurt and offended and I supported those signing a petition to have her removed from her government post.
It was my view that the issue was not one of free speech, but about a person paid with taxpayers’ funds abusing and discriminating against a person of colour. It shook me that someone who held public office now believed that courtesy was unnecessarily politically correct and that hate-filled rants and quips were acceptable. I recognized that a tide in public conduct and discourse was turning, from a culture of tolerance to one of open intolerance.
I felt then that the creep of hatred, racism and social alienation can be insidious and, unless stopped, there is a danger that it can become institutionalized, accepted, acceptable and mainstreamed and harm the fabric of the country. It is therefore necessary to put our foot down every time behaviour like that displayed by the clerk, raises its head.
For a week now, I have been mulling over two incidents that happened to me in New York, in this the time of this new president. Barbadians say, “when you sow the wind, you reap the whirlwind”. The problem with that is, you cannot control the whirlwind, where it goes, who and what it sweeps us and destroys.
I watched during the campaign as very dangerous rhetoric of race, xenophobic sentiments and attitudes were unleashed and whipped up. I had no doubt that there were people who, if Donald Trump won, would feel that it was open season on brown and black people. I have watched since elections and listened to the increase in racist incidents as we go about our daily life. Now it has actually touched me.
Two Thursdays ago, I was standing in Penn Station next to a column. I was pretty much tucked out of the way as I was making a phone call and I wanted to complete it before I went deeper into the subway and lost connection.
I saw a man walking in my direction with “spinner” suitcases. I was not in his way so I went on with my call and he fell off my radar, until I felt the most intense pain on the toes of my right foot. I cannot say the man ran the suitcase over my foot deliberately. What I can say is that I was not in his path and to reach my foot, he and his suitcases had to veer off their walking line and come to the right, avoid the column that was next to me, which he would have reached first, and still manage to run over my foot. That took a lot of “steering”.
So let me say, recalling my days as a lawyer drafting and defending legal pleadings, “that the walker with the spinner suitcases so failed to manage, direct, control, or maneuver the suitcases, that they ran over my right foot resulting in injury to me and damage to my shoe.” The walker did not pause, stop or say sorry but walked rapidly on, leaving me in shock. The speed with which he walked away suggests that the walker’s actions were not accidental.
I finished my business and got the subway to my meeting. There were empty seats on both sides of the train. I chose a block of three, sitting on the extreme right of the block, leaving two empty seats on my left. After about two stops, a man got on the train. He chose not only to sit in the same block of seats I had chosen, but of the two empty seats next to me, he chose the one on my immediate left rather than the one on the extreme left.
Those of you who know the NY subway culture would know that if there are three empty seats and someone comes on, they generally sit in the one furthest away from a seated passenger and not next to them. You only sit next to people when the train is full and you do not have options.
Before we could get to the next train stop, the man who is now seated on my left, turned to me and starts to talk loudly. I ignored him. He is asking offensive questions. Then he tells me, “Look at you. Jesus Christ was a white man, but you are a monkey.” I said nothing. He repeated it, laughing and becoming more crude, vile and abusive. I do not turn. I do not look at him. My toes are still hurting from the suitcase being dragged over them. I sit with my eyes ahead. I say nothing. I never turn my body or glance in his direction.
I was actually praying, “Lord, this man is talking with his mouth which he is entitled to do, but please do not let this man touch me. This will not end well if he does.”
The abuse does not stop. At every station people get on and off. The train is filling up, but no one comes near us. And no one says a word to him. Not “stop it”; not “leave the woman alone”; not “behave yourself, this woman has not troubled you”; not “this is unacceptable”. Not a single word was uttered. No one comes to my defence.
Passengers look on with sympathy, contempt, amusement, disgust, with apparent support for the man, or support for me, but to the person, they are silent. And my abuser does not stop his tirade. He was clearly trying to goad and provoke me and the fact that I would not even glance in his direction really seemed to annoy him. I thought of telling this man something really scathing, but 16 years ago, when someone had tried to harm my father and I had lost my temper, sworn and behaved badly, my Dad said to me, “Liz, always remember who you are.”
I sit on that train, silent. I remember that I was raised to respect myself and others. I remember what my parents and my country expect of me. I remember that I am a professional, that I have four degrees and am a high-earning individual. I think, “Liz, you haven’t done badly for a monkey.” I remember the racist abuse people I know have experienced since elections. Good, decent, hardworking, law abiding people, who just happen to be brown or black. I hear this man’s racist abuse. He has come so close to me that I can smell his breath. Several cutting comments and put downs come to my mind, but I do not let my mouth utter them.
I remember a quotation from George Bernard Shaw, which I use in my book, Make Yourself Happy. It is a wonderful line: “Never wrestle with a pig, you both get dirty and the pig likes it.” I determine that I will not let the pig-man next to me pull me down into the dirt and nastiness on the sty floor where he is clearly comfortable.
I see the face of my dead father in front of me. I hear my Dad in my ear now. He is speaking quietly, gently, urging me to act with restraint. I hear Dad’s voice and I block out the idiot on my left who is loudly calling me a monkey and being as nasty as he possibly can. I know if this man tries to harm me, no one will intervene. I pray it does not come to that.
I sit erect, legs crossed at the ankles, my handbag on my lap. In my head, I count down the stops to my destination. Finally, we are at my stop. I remain seated until the last minute. Then, without giving him a lot of time to follow, I head quickly for the door and I am on the platform, away from my tormentor who is still on the train. As I leave, I am watched by every eye in that car of the train. I still had not uttered a word to this man or looked at him. To this day, I cannot identify the face of this persecutor, nor the abuser with the weaponized suitcases.
A young white woman, who also got off the train, stops on the platform and comes across to speak to me. “I am so sorry.” She goes on to apologize for this man’s behaviour. She says it was unacceptable. She is distressed at what I had to endure. She says she cannot imagine anyone treating her like that. She compliments me on my dignity and restraint. I thank her for her kind words, knowing that she will never be called a monkey or an ape.
She is truly upset. She makes a critical point, which is that she understands this is not an isolated incident and that she cannot imagine having to face that kind of racism daily. I smile. I know that no one will ever see her dressed in a business suit in the first class lounge of an airline, assume she was a member of the wait staff and ask her to serve them their meal, as has happened to me.
I do not waste time asking her why she never said a word to the man while we were on the train. Her heart is in the right place. Hopefully, she will encourage friends, relatives, partners, colleagues and her children, to take the high road of justice and equality of all members of the human family. I thank her again and bid her good evening.
She turns right. I go left. Black and white, each clothed in the skin given by God, skin that some individuals and societies will use to define how black and brown people are treated in life and, to some extent, their socioeconomic opportunity.
My foot and my heart hurt. I take a deep breath and head for my meeting. On the way, I walk and wonder what other indignities are in store as the bigots become more comfortable in taking off their masks, believing they have an ally on Pennsylvania Avenue.
I pray for grace, fortitude and protection in this new climate. I know things are going to get worse. The question is, how much worse and what will have to happen to pull the country back to reasonableness of thought, attitude, action, and behaviour? What will the new America be like? Dad said, “Remember who you are.” Perhaps America needs to remember that the words of its national anthem proclaim that the country stands for “just cause” and the “home of the free”. (Huffington Post)
Liz Thompson is a former Minister of Government and Senator in Barbados, and a former Assistant Secretary General of the United Nations.
She is also the author of the new motivational book, Make Yourself Happy a consultant, lawyer, writer, speaker and motivator, sharing stories of struggle and success for hope-full, happy living. Visit her blog LizOnLife-Site@wordpress.com, Facebook page Liz Thompson @LizOnLife and Twitter LizOnLovingLife.