I was on the Max today, like any other normal day, on my way home from work. The normality, however, was shattered when I found myself on the receiving end of a white woman’s racist tirade; never before have I been called a n****r so many times in one setting.
The Max was packed, standing room only. I was standing next to the door, trying to make efficient use of my time by reading through a legal brief in a case that I’ve been working on. We came to a stop and I stepped off so people could exit, and then I allowed those who were getting on at the stop to get on in front of me so that they could find a spot. A white woman, who was waiting to get on, just waited, refusing to take me up on my offer to let her go first. I didn’t think anything of it and I stepped back on the Max and she entered after me. Because of how little room there was, we were forced to stand about six inches apart.
I returned to reading my brief, nearly oblivious to the world around me. After a few minutes, I hear the woman say “Stop touching me.” I glance down thinking that maybe my briefcase bumped into her, but there’s still space between us so she can’t be talking to me. But then I hear her mumbling what sounds like n****r under her breath. I assume I misheard, so I choose to ignore it and go back to reading. Unfortunately, I didn’t mishear. She continues to mumble n****r several more times.
“Excuse me, did you say something to me?” I asked. She turns to me and asks what am I reading. Not wanting to engage her, other than trying to stop her from saying n****r, I respond that it’s for work and I go back to reading. “For work, huh. Probably can’t even read n****r,” she mumbles as she turns away from me.
At this point, a man (who appears to be white) sitting in front of her tells her that she needs to keep her thoughts to herself. “Nobody wants to hear that,” he says. She says something back to him, but I’m just trying to make sure the situation doesn’t get worse so I quietly thank the man and I go back to reading.
A couple minutes later, she screams “Don’t grab me!” At this point, I’m getting nervous. I instantly start thinking about what this will look like when and if the police arrive. Will the other passengers believe that I haven’t done anything? What if they don’t? And who will the police believe: America’s favorite victim, the white woman, or me, the black guy. I try to step as far away from her as I can on a crowded Max. I noticeably make it clear that I’m holding the brief in my left hand (the side closest to her) and my right hand is in my pocket, so there’s no way I could have grabbed her.
Her latest outburst is followed with several more uses of n****r, and she then starts telling the man who intervened that a n****r grabbed her on the shoulder. I truly don’t know how to respond so I just continue to ignore her. She then turns to me and calls me a n****r to my face.
“You need to calm down.” I say.
“You can’t tell me what to do n****r.” She answers.
“You need. To watch. Your mouth.” I finally say, through gritted teeth, struggling to stay calm.
She then snatches my hand asking if that was the hand I touched her with. “Don’t touch me,” I say, pushing her hand away. Even as I push her hand away, I’m hyper concerned about what the other passengers are thinking. Am I going to look aggressive? Did I use too much force? She tries to grab my hand again and I pull it away. The man who intervened stands up and offers her his seat to try and get her away from me. His offer then turns more into a demand. “You need to knock it off. Sit the f*** down and leave him alone.” She refuses and continues to shout her racist vitriol. All the while, I’m just trying to ignore her and read the brief that is now shaking violently with emotion in my hands.
Finally, about five minutes after her initial outburst, the man to my right suggests swapping places with me to create some distance. I thank him and switch places. The woman continues to shout about n****rs and tells me that I’m not even a person. Eventually, two to three other people speak up, telling the woman to shut up and stop. Apparently, they had been encouraged by the other two men’s decisions to intervene. The woman cursed at them until she got off at the next stop.
Through all of this, what bothers me the most is not the raving racism of this crazy woman. It’s the silence and indifference of the 20+ people who witnessed the entire situation taking place. After the woman got off, a few people told me they were sorry that happened and some made comments about the woman being crazy, but nearly every one of those people (mostly white) chose not to intervene during the situation, even though they knew the situation was wrong.
And for obvious reasons, my options were limited. Any decision I made could instantly paint me as the angry and aggressive black male, and cause the passengers to turn against me. It reminds me of the scene in Black Panther when T’Challa has captured Klaue after the car chase. As he’s contemplating striking Klaue, Okoye stops him by reminding him that the world is watching. As black people, the world is always watching—and judging—our reaction; even more harshly than the original wrongdoing. Instead of judging police brutality, the world judges Kaepernick and BLM. Instead of criticizing trump’s encouragement of violence, they question Congresswoman Maxine Water’s “civility.” One poor reaction on my part could transform the woman into the victim and myself into the bad actor.
Because of this, minorities need the assistance of allies. Yet each of those individuals on the Max were content to let someone else step in, and if no one stepped in, so be it. They were all waiting for the other person to act; no one wanted to be the “first.” I’m thankful for the two who did act. But to the rest of the passengers, stop waiting for someone else to speak up. Stop waiting for someone else to do something.
White people if you’re wondering what you can do, it’s simple. Please just be the “first.”