Portland’s mass transit agency, TriMet, reminds us if we see something, say something; the message is plastered all over its MAX cars and buses, but I saw something on the MAX the other day and said nothing.
Along with about a dozen other people seated in the front area of a MAX car (the part that you climb the stairs to get to) at about 8:15 on a weeknight, I witnessed an incident of racial profiling and didn’t call out the perpetrator. As is often the case in situations where you want to say the right thing perfectly, it was only after the fact that I could figure out what to say and how to say it.
Here’s what happened: A few stops after I got on the MAX headed east, three young African Americans boarded the train. Everyone else in our section of the car was white (and possibly older, but I can’t precisely recall). They were conversing in what I’d call a “teenaged” way – laughing, a little loud, seemingly unaware of others in the car. Someone in the area had music going loud enough so that it leaked out of the earbuds. (Let me parenthetically state that hearing this “half-music” possibly annoys me more than loud phone conversations on public transit, and I don’t recall being bothered by the sound.) While stopped at the Rose Quarter station, a uniformed woman (TriMet, but not law enforcement) boarded our car, walked up the stairs and spoke directly to the Black youths that there had been a complaint about their music.
When they stated that they hadn’t been playing any music, this person glanced around to the rest of us and sort of generally asked whoever was playing their music too loudly to turn it down. She stepped out of the car, walked around its front to (I assume) speak with the driver because she returned to the car and said – again to the Black youths – yes, it was a complaint about your music and it’s time to turn it down.
Here is, of course, the point that I should have spoken up about what I just saw. I know I don’t want to escalate the situation, so I need to craft my words carefully. And that is so hard to do in the moment.
I have the (awkwardly formal) conversation clear in my head now:
Me: Excuse me, but I would like to point out that I have just witnessed an incident of racial profiling in this MAX car. If you’ve received a complaint about loud music, you must ask each of us if we have been playing music and that we must turn it down.
She: Oh, yes, you’re absolutely right, I shouldn’t have assumed it was the African Americans on this train who were listening to loud music. First, let me apologize to these young people right now and explain to the rest of you here in this section that you cannot play your music so loudly that the driver is able to hear it.
Me: Thank you.
I did send an equally careful comment via the TriMet website but it’s really too late. Cynically, I assume they will send that employee to some diversity training, she’ll be resentful and won’t hear what the trainers have to share, and it will happen all over again.
I hope it doesn’t happen all over again for me. Next time, I hope I’ll have the courage to speak up.
Can you share a situation where you witnessed something wrong and did or didn’t speak up?
(And because I’m a librarian, I found some books on the subject.)