Yesterday I was waiting for the bus to go to an appointment. When the bus stopped, a man and woman got off and in the usual tradition of thanking the driver, the man did so. However, the way he said it wasn’t a thank you. He spit it out as an insult. The bus driver was a black woman. He said, “Thanks for the ride, nigger.”
My jaw dropped. I couldn’t believe I heard that right. The man brushed past me with his girlfriend in tow and crossed the street. I got on, unbelieving. I must have misheard. “Did he just say what I thought he said?” I asked the driver.
The driver nodded and just shrugged in an “Oh, well, whattaya gonna do?” sort of expression.
“How rude,” I said.
I sat down. The more I thought about it, the more upset and fuming I got. It wasn’t just rude. It was meant to be demeaning and hateful. It was racist.
Yes, I know there is racism in this world. I see the results of that in politics, in business, in poverty, and who most of the inmates are in prison.
But surprisingly, I’ve not really witnessed it much in my own personal bubble. I was married to a black man in my first marriage, and in the few years we were together, I can think of only one negative comment we got from people. A stranger driving by catcalled at us for being an interracial couple. I don’t recall any overt (or even indirect) racism toward my ex at the time, either (though that doesn’t mean it didn’t happen–I just never saw it myself). To my knowledge, our son has not experienced any racism, either. I asked him about it recently, because I was curious. It’s possible he has, but just didn’t recognize it as such. It’s also possible that I’ve had blinders on.
So to see such an obviously racist act against that driver was startling for me.
I got up and walked back to the front of the bus. “Do you have to deal with racist s.o.b.’s like that often?” I asked the driver.
“Yeah. All the time. But you just gotta let it slide. They’re the ones with the problem. Not me. They don’t like themselves. They’re angry all the time. So they gotta project that on somebody else. It makes them feel all big to make other people feel little. They like to stir things up and get mad when you just ignore ’em. Cuz then you aren’t helping them feel big. I don’t have time for that. I ignore ’em.”
“You shouldn’t have to,” I said. At this point, I was wondering if I was more upset by this incident than she was.
“Yeah, but that’s the world we live in.”
I don’t much like that world.
That driver’s attitude toward something she couldn’t control got under my skin. As a privileged white person, I can’t even begin to imagine having to deal with that kind of negativity directed toward me day in and day out. I can’t fathom having to develop that kind of armor.
But…her words made sense. I can see how they apply to negative, hateful people in general, whether they are racist, or sexist, or fill-in-the-blank-ist. They want to stir shit up because they don’t like themselves. They are not comfortable in their own skin. I think that is probably true for many. But I see a second problem. Negative, hateful people are threatened by difference. They are threatened by change. Perhaps that is rooted in their own self-esteem. Perhaps, if they liked themselves and were comfortable with who they were, they wouldn’t be afraid. Perhaps not.
We are all different. The color of skin and texture of our hair shouldn’t matter. Whether we are male or female shouldn’t matter. Whether we are gay or straight, Jew, Catholic, Muslim, atheist, or what-have-you, shouldn’t matter. People are people.
While ignoring negative people might water down their fire in the short term, I don’t know what the answer is in the long term. Ignoring a problem doesn’t make it go away. It’s been 149 years since the Emancipation Proclamation, and there is still institutionalized racism in this country. We’ve made great strides since Dr. King’s immortal words, but we’ve still got a long way to go. We’ve got probably even longer on all those other -isms out there.
I wonder how long it will take? And what it will take? How do we eradicate the fear of difference…of other? How do we help people love themselves? And how do we do that en masse?