I had been sitting by myself on the bus to Union Station, listening to music. It was when I took my headphones off that I suddenly caught,
“…must be a foreign Asian kid loaded with Daddy’s credit card.”
I hadn’t noticed them when they got on, but a couple in probably their mid-to-late twenties had been sitting behind me, and the wife’s instant “Shh!” as soon as she saw I was no longer wearing headphones would more than suggest that the “foreign Asian kid” was none other than myself. I instinctively tensed and hid myself behind my seat. Was it the way I had dressed? My dyed hair? My Beats headphones?
“What? You were the one who first brought it up.” It seemed he had yet to realize that I could, quite clearly, hear what they were saying.
“I know, but just..shh.”
When I stole a quick glance behind me, I was met with green eyes that swam with wariness and judgment. I turned back to face forward, stifling my rising anger. When we arrived and stood to get off, I turned back to make sure I hadn’t left anything, and once again found myself being scrutinized with judgment, this time at the sorority keychain hanging from my backpack. When the woman looked up at me, we made eye contact, and I made no effort to soften the glare I gave her. “Make more judgments about me, please,” my eyes shouted.
Standing in line to pay for the tickets outside at the station, they continued to discuss how rude the bus driver had been, even taking a picture of the bus number to write a complaint. I was floored. It was incredible how they failed to see how brazen they themselves were. When I turned to my side, I was once again, unsurprisingly, met with a hard stare from the man. Stepping forward and once again swallowing my words, I paid for my ticket.
When I asked if they took American Express, I spoke clearly, using natural English – because I was born and raised in America.
I gave the woman a credit card with my name on it, connected to my bank account because I’ve bought everything with my own money ever since I started working when I was 15. I haven’t asked my parents to buy anything for me, not my headphones, not my clothes, nor my dyed hair, which I did myself, because I didn’t have Daddy’s credit card to spend at a salon.
I wasn’t sure what made me more angry – the snap judgments made that couldn’t have been more wrong, or the roots of racism lying under it all. But how could I say anything? How could I make a scene, and do nothing but shift their opinions about me from a spoiled foreign Asian brat to those of a mannerless American brat with an attitude? My words would be wasted, and my sentiments would fall upon ears that could hear, but simply chose not to.
And while I myself was subjected to incidental racism, I accidentally did the same to another man later that very day.
On the Metro, I had my bag in front of me with my wallet sitting on top as I looked my phone. When I saw a man coming down the aisle, I absentmindedly moved to push my bag in so that he would have more room as he walked by, but, forgetting my wallet was on top, accidentally placed my hand on my wallet. The man, a black man, put both hands up and I looked up to see widened eyes and lips that mouthed, “no, it’s okay,” as he continued walking by. For a brief moment I was confused, until it dawned on me what my literal slip of hand had done.
I was mortified.
What had been a mindless gesture to make things more convenient for a stranger on the same train as me had turned into what was, understandably, perceived as a defensive measure against a man I appeared to assume to be a thief.
My chest burned with regret, and as he passed by again to return to his seat, I desperately wanted to say something, to apologize. But once again, I couldn’t do it. The words rose up in my throat but dissipated as soon as I opened my mouth. And after the longest second of my life had passed, so had the man, returned to his seat at the other end. I was filled with both shame and anger at my lack of bravery to speak up and say something, at my paralysis rooted in the fear of making things worse.
It was hard to miss the irony of the situation. I knew exactly what it felt like to be on the receiving end of racism – I had angrily ranted to my best friends about how I had felt just hours before. Here I likely made someone feel similar sentiments, and despite understanding what it was like, ended up not being brave enough to speak up and apologize for what my actions seemed like. I couldn’t stop thinking, even hours later after getting off that train, about whether or not I had affected the rest of his day, whether or not I had affirmed the racial stereotypes that fueled his defensive actions. I probably wasn’t the first to (appear to) act this way, and I probably wouldn’t be the last.
I was…ashamed. I had become what I myself hated. I had accidentally perpetuated the racist undertones that this man, and so many individuals, must face on a daily basis. The same undertones that I hated, that had screamed in my own face just hours ago.
And it weighed on me heavily.