By John Smelcer
Every time I visit New York City, I like to take the subways and explore parts of the city, getting off at random stops and walking around for a few blocks avoiding the usual tourist traps and discovering hole-in-the-wall cafes, coffee houses, and bars and meeting new people. I’ve never been the pre-planned itinerary kind of person. A few years ago, while on such a spontaneous excursion, I learned something about myself. One evening I took the A-Train from Manhattan across the river to Brooklyn. On one of the last stops before crossing the Brooklyn Bridge, a young Black man came aboard and sat across from me on the crowded car. Judging by the way he was dressed, his gold tooth and gold bling, and from his many tattoos, some people might have called him a hoodlum, gangster, or a gangbanger. As a writer, I had my laptop bag with me. I remember pulling the bag closer and running the shoulder strap around my forearm so that it might be more difficult to grab the bag and run for it in a snatching. I felt my jacket pocket, reassuringly feeling my wallet. I never carried it in my back pocket when visiting New York or any large city in the world.
At the first stop in Brooklyn, a little old Black lady with a large purse and a bag of groceries boarded the crowded train. With no place to sit, she ambled down the aisle, steadying herself, and stood between us holding on to one of the poles for support as the jarring train rattled down the track to the next stop. I was still keeping a suspicious eye on the young man and thinking about what I would do if he tried to grab my laptop bag, when he stood up and offered his seat to the old woman, who gladly took it.
For the rest of the ride, I scrutinized the young Black man now standing before me, the old Black woman now sitting across from me. As a new realization began to dawn on me, I felt something in the pit of my stomach. I came to understand that the uncomfortable feeling was shame. My shame. I had projected on to the young man all the negative stereotypes I could conjure. In my mind, and based solely on the way he looked, he was someone to be feared—a violent, antisocial criminal who was devoid of kindness, decency, respect, or compassion. I, on the other hand, was a university professor and world-travelled writer who had studied at the world’s great universities. I’m also an anthropologist who appreciates and understands the variations in people and cultures. I understood that the young man and I came from different worlds, so to speak. But to my great embarrassment, it was he, not I, who graciously gave up his seat so that an elderly woman with a burden could sit and rest. Aren’t we all taught to be respectful of our elders? He had showed respect; I had not. Would I have offered my seat to the old woman if she had been white? Would he?
Eventually, I got off the subway and explored some unfamiliar neighborhood of Brooklyn, where I enjoyed a late supper at a Jamaican restaurant. No one stole my laptop or wallet that night or any time since. But for years, I have contemplated my actions and inactions that night. Was I blinded by racism and racial stereotypes? Like you, I don’t believe I am racist. Like you, I believe I am essentially a fair and good person who looks beyond outward appearances. Why hadn’t I seen the humanity in everyone aboard the train that night, each person going about their own lives, each every bit as important as my own? If I, who am no better than you, can be susceptible to the dehumanizing effects of racism, are you any better?
In order to live a compassionate life you must first recognize that everyone deserves to be treated with respect and dignity and to be appreciated for who they are. If the suspicion and hatred of racism is learned from social stereotypes, then we can unlearn them and learn to love instead. We should celebrate our differences, not distance ourselves from one another because of them. Consider the way you interact with other people. Don’t make the same mistaken assumptions I did.John Smelcer is the award-winning author of over 50 books, including The Gospel of Simon, Simon of Cyrene’s compelling account of Jesus’s Passion and crucifixion. Learn more at www.johnsmelcer.com