Normally, when I need to go to Toronto from Montreal, I drive the five hours and bring both cat and dog with me. This time, I left the cat and dog at a kennel and boarded a train. I’ve had problems with intercity buses (chatty neighbours, unfiltered “music” from oversized headphones, passengers with obnoxious hygiene habits, the obligatory domestic dispute, etc.), and especially planes (because of that time some old dude on the plane got smashingly drunk on tiny bottles of vodka and decided it was perfectly all right to “calm me down” by grabbing my knee and massaging my thigh). So you can imagine the thoughts that were going through my head when I boarded the VIA Rail car and saw a man sitting in 4B. My ticket was 4A.
See, I love sitting at a window seat. Watching the horizon helps me to manage motion sickness, and it allows me to see everything I miss when focused driving the road ahead. But it also means I’m trapped. I can’t get up without giving the aisle-sitter ample opportunity to grab something that doesn’t belong to him. Heaven help you if you hit turbulence or a curve in the track when you get up.
So, I was already uncomfortable with the thought of having to sit beside a strange man.
But then I realized there was something horrific and alien was happening inside my head. Dread. Fear based solely on the man’s looks and accent. He wore a ratty toque, a hoodie, a dirty pair of jeans, scuffed and holey tennis shoes, and a look of exhausted boredom, and on the seat beside him was a limp backpack with one busted zipper. On top of that, he was Black, and he had a Caribbean accent.
Understand: when I was in high school, instead of writing gothic poetry, I channeled my angst into twenty-page, handwritten, all-caps treatices against racism and other forms of social injustice. I grew up believing everyone was equal, but that no matter who or what you are, someone is going to treat you like scum, just because you’re not like somebody else. Prejudice was not part of my upbringing. And present-day: the church that I go to is 40% first generation West African immigrants, 40% first generation South American immigrants, and the remaining 20% is a smattering of Quebecois, first generation European, and me, the resident anglo. I work at a multi-national, multilingual company, where every conference call is like the UN Showcase of Accents. I live in a city that was once rated the most Trilingual City in North America, and if you walk into any crowded Tim Hortons or dollar store, you’re going to hear a minimum of five languages. In my writing, I try my dangedest to build a cast of characters that is representative of the cultural mix in that true-to-life setting (though I rarely succeed). And in my community, racially, culturally, and linguistically, I am in the minority. And I love it.
And yet here I was, on a train between the two biggest cities in Canada, struck dumb by my own prejudgment.
I do not know where these thoughts came from, and I do not want them.
So there I was, standing in the aisle, looking down at this hoodlum – realized that was the exact word in my head – made eye contact, and smiled. He smiled back. I told him I was seated in 4A. He quickly apologized and removed all his luggage from the seat beside him, he stood up to make room for me, and he held the overhead compartment open for me while I put my backpack inside. You know, doing all the things a courteous fellow passengers would do. I hated myself for expecting anything less. Then again, Mr. Groper had been courteous too, before he opened his first itty-bitty bottle of vodka.
We sat and said our hellos and good mornings. He checked his cell phone. I checked mine. The train began to roll out, and I began to read. He bent over and took out his laptop from his ripped backpack and set it up on his tray. I noticed stickers on his laptop – brightly coloured and happy, designed like the kind of professional “graffiti” you would see on a mural outside a community centre or a comic bookstore. Then I saw, despite his youthful face, he had grey hair along his temples. Just like me.
Sometime later, after he’d checked his emails and after he showed me how to connect to WiFi on my iPad (demonstrating with his own iPad, as a matter of fact), the ticket checker came by. She scanned my tickets. She scanned his tickets. She thanked us and moved on.
My neighbour smiled at me and said, “You goin’ to Oshawa?” I said I was. “I been there,” he said, “but only passing through, because I didn’t see anything.” I asked him if he was going to Toronto. “Yeah,” he said, “just for a visit. Two weeks. Any more than that, and my girlfriend will think I’m movin’ back.” He shook his head and swore he’d never move back. “I belong in Halifax, you know? That’s where my family is. That’s where the sea is. That’s what I need.” I asked him if he’d been taking the train all the way from Nova Scotia. “I’ve been on the train now for almost forty-two hours. No sleep since I left. I tried beer, I tried juice, I tried covering my head. I tried everything, man, and I still cain’t sleep.”
I was kicking myself, because if I was trapped on a train for up to two days straight, sitting down, with no shower, no place to stretch out, no hot food, and surrounded by all the same dead-asleep faces, I wouldn’t want to wear my Sunday best either. I would travel in warm hoodies I can stain with coffee whenever the train lurches. I would wear shoes one step above slippers. I would wear my frumpiest mom jeans. The difference is, I’d look like I was backpacking Europe.
Then he brought out his cordless phone charger and exhorted me to buy one for myself – “But at the dollar store. You can get it for like ten bucks there. My friend got one at like a Future Shop or something. Forty bucks. That’s just stupid. Exact same thing. Ten bucks. Can’t go wrong.”
On and off that morning and afternoon, we conversed. Sometimes he’d stream Vines over WiFi while I read my paperback. I offered him a book to read as well, but he politely declined and said he didn’t enjoy reading. We got chatting about ourselves. We both work at a corporation, but we both decided not to talk about it since we were on vacation. We got talking about “kids these days”, and I laughed at all the times he said they were spoiled by technology. I guessed his age was about mine (turns out he’s two years old than me), and, because it was small talk, I decided to ask about his kids. My treacherous brain was thinking “blended family, no marriages, unruly, all unemployed, and in trouble.” So I thumbed my nose at my own parasite-thoughts and asked the same question I would pose to a white woman. “Kids in school?” He blinked at me thoughtfully. Then he smiled. “Yeah, four with my ex-wife,” he answered. “Two in university. Two in high school.” Then he beamed, leaned closer and said, “One of my boys is on a, whaddyoucallit, a bursary.” He glowed, and his chest swelled with pride. After that, he laid out one story after another, like postcards and trophies, telling me all about his kids triumphs’ and foibles, all the while bursting with hope and good humour.
If my heart could leap and drown at the same time, that’s what happened. I was overjoyed that I had made him happy by asking an intelligent question. I was making a dedicated effort to move past subtle racist thoughts that did not belong to me and that I didn’t want, and an even bigger effort to leap over the sexist anxieties that really did belong to me. I was chucking out all the xenophobic spam in my mental inbox. Go me. And yet I was sickened by the fact that I had to wade through eighty foul assumptions before I got to that one intelligent question. Where had all these assumptions come from? And why was I congratulating myself so loudly on suddenly becoming “non-racist”? And how much of every day does this man have to put up with people like me? Did he know better than me what subtle nastiness had infected my brain, and was it obvious to him? Was it tiresome? Or was he relieved to sit with a stranger who would simply treat him like a human being – and as a father, to boot?
From then on, whenever we chatted, I made sure to think before I spoke: was I only asking questions to “prove” I wasn’t a racist? Or was I asking because I was genuinely interested?
I told him a little about <Secret Project 2017>, and he was excited for me, also asking intelligent questions and giving sound business advice. Turns out he’s big into producing music in his spare time. He showed me a picture of the $10,000+ sound system he had assembled piece by piece over the years, and he explained how he had to start selling off parts to help put his kids through school. We talked about sound systems, venue management, getting audiences, booking events, all that jazz. And we laughed about things we had in common, namely taking the Via when we were very young, when they were still handing out cardboard Via trains that you could fold and assemble and play with on tables. I was enjoying myself so much that after a while, I even forgave him for his manspreading.
And somewhere in the middle of that high-hearted conversation about the joys of travelling young, a new conductor came through checking tickets. This one was tall, late-middle-aged, and he pouted. His was the kind of surly you can spot at forty paces, and which rebuffs you like a sparking electromagnetic shield. He checked the tickets from those people over there (and thanked them), checked the tickets from those people over there (and thanked them). My neighbour and I went fishing for our tickets likewise, so that when the conductor came over, we were ready. He took my ticket first, and he said nothing when he gave it back. Wouldn’t even look me in the eye. Then he took the ticket from my neighbour. He read the ticket over again, thoroughly.
“You bought this with a CAA discount?” the conductor asked.
I could see subtle changes in my neighbour’s body language. Not quite cringing. Not quite getting his back up. A certain alarm just the same. A tired, but hair-trigger, alarm.
“Yes I did, sir,” my neighbour said.
The conductor made eye contact with my neighbour, and through his unmoving, flabulous, jowly frown, he said, “I need to see your CAA card.”
My neighbour looked at me.
All I could do was show the conductor my own jowly frown, the one handed down to me from one fire-and-brimstone matriarch to the next. After all, the ticket was already paid for, so who cares which discount was used? And heck, if he was so worried that my neighbour had stolen the ticket – and then rode a train from Halifax to Toronto with *every* *single* *stop* along the way – why wouldn’t he ask for photo i.d. instead, to prove the ticket holder’s name matched the ticket holder’s face?
The conductor waited, watching my neighbour, who leaned the other way so he could get his wallet from his back pocket. He took out his CAA card and handed it over. While the train rocked, the conductor studiously matched card with ticket, then handed both back with a gruff noise that might have been “thank you”.
For a while, we were quiet, my nieghbour and I. He put his card in his wallet, his wallet in his pocket, his laptop in his backpack, and his smile in his black cloud of disappointment.
I was outraged. Here I was, spending hours wrestling with thoughts that were not my own, vetoing every careless word before committing to it, editing line after line of knee-jerk assumptions. And here *he* was, this professional VIA Rail employee, going out of his way to exert his racism.
Then my neighbour smiled bravely, though his eyes couldn’t quite meet mine, and he said with a wide slow shrug, “What can you do, right?”
Everything, I wanted to say. Shout. Stand up. Call him out. Demand to know why a CAA card was so important. Do something. Say anything. But I couldn’t think of one thing that I could have done that wouldn’t make the situation worse for my new friend. I couldn’t even prove that this act was racist. For all I knew, it was company policy to check all discount tickets.
“It’s a good thing you had the card with you,” I mumbled. I didn’t want to think what would have happened if he hadn’t had that dumb CAA card in his wallet.
I wanted to cry. I’m supposed to be the mighty guerrilla social justice warrior, reweighting every unfair battle in favour of the underdog. And all I did was make jowls and scrub a stain off the toe of my shoe. Not only was my brain infected with thoughts I didn’t want, but I had let that conductor get away with blatant “Move along, boy” policies. I wanted to purge my brain. I wanted to apologize. I wanted to leave. But on a train doing 125 kph along the shores of Lake Ontario, there’s really nowhere to go, and nothing you can do.
We’re made to believe that racists are rampaging loudmouths with outdated flags tattooed on their foreheads; we’re brought up to believe they’re cowardly gun-toting maniacs; we’re made to think they’re artificially tanned talking heads on certain television networks; we’re made to believe they’re pearl-clutching moms with skirt suits, and hairdos so stiff you could pluck them off like LEGO accessories. That’s why systemic racism is so pervasive: we believe we’re not racists because we don’t look like those racists. So we’re not part of the problem. So the problem is not ours. So there’s nothing for us to fix.
Except that we are the problem.
Systemic racism doesn’t roar, it whispers. It recodes our mental operating system, and it propagates from one host to the next, not by our actions, but by our inactions. It doesn’t say “all Black people are criminals”, it simply says “this person might have stolen a train ticket.” It doesn’t tell you why you’re afraid of that person leaning against the wall; it tells you that person is looking for a victim, and you’re it. It doesn’t come out and say “What that white man did to that black man is right!”; it tells you, “It’s none of your business, you’ll only make things worse, he probably did something to set him off, and you’re not sure what you saw, anyways.”
Systemic racism is a pernicious, silent, and invisible worm.
It didn’t go away with the Civil Rights Movement. It isn’t limited to Ferguson, Missouri, or to North Charleston, South Carolina, or Tulsa, Oklahoma. It isn’t limited to the Deep South. It’s not limited to White-vs.-Everyone-Else. It’s not limited to Missionary-Position vs. Everything-Else, nor media-vs.women, Christendom vs. Islam, rich-vs.-poor, skinny-vs.-fat, liberty-vs.-law. It always boils down to “Us vs. Them”, and ultimately “Mine vs. Them.” It’s part of the human condition, and always will be. Even if we were invaded by three consecutive waves of extraterrestrials, and if we were fighting for sovereignty of our own planet – even if we were fighting for our very lives – we would still find a reason to hate one other.
I can’t fix this. I can’t even convince one person that they’re also prejudiced, nor can I affect their behaviour. All I can do is confront these intrusive thoughts in my own porous mind, and to change my own attitude.
And maybe, I can inspire others to do some soul-searching too.
As for my friend the aisle-seat passenger? I hope some day he gets a free upgrade to first class.