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Riding With My White Privilege

I don’t generally publicly share stories of random encounters I’ve had with strangers in New York City, but this week I had an experience on the subway while riding with my 12-1/2-year-old daughter R that struck me as worth sharing. It was surprising, challenging, instructive, intense, sensitizing, and, ultimately, very gratifying and maybe even important.

First, the necessary background. I have allowed R to climb subway poles (the ones meant to be held onto by standing passengers) ever since she first wanted to try, so I guess since she was a toddler. (Judge away, if you are so inclined, but I have felt completely unconflicted about this.) The rules around climbing have always been: (1), the subway has to be completely stopped (i.e., at a station); (2), the area of the subway car near the pole she chooses has to be very sparsely populated (i.e., absolutely no risk of her kicking or in any way at all interfering with any other passenger sitting or standing in the area); and (3), she has to hop down from the pole the moment the chime rings indicating the doors are about to close and the subway about to move. R is an excellent climber and loves to shimmy up and down trees and lampposts and the like, and with subway poles she’s generally up and down once or twice and then she’s done.

Over the years, we’ve gotten a number of different kinds of reactions from fellow passengers. In most stereotypical New York form, R is often simply ignored. Other times she’s gotten applause or friendly smiles, and sometimes other kids have asked the adults with them if they can try (and they are mostly told “no” but sometimes “yes”). Occasionally, but not often, she’s gotten dirty looks, which I’ve usually interpreted as meaning my child is behaving badly and/or I shouldn’t be allowing her to do this.

On this day’s subway ride on the R train headed for the East Side, my daughter R (not to be confused with the letter name of the subway) got a dirty look. A woman with a heavily tattooed chest and a patch of dyed bright blue hair, probably in her 30s, sitting alone on a row of seats on the train, gave R a fed-up, pissed off dirty look as R quickly shimmied up and down a nearby pole and then took a seat next to me. When the subway stopped at the next station, the car remained relatively empty, so R hopped up to climb the pole again. This time the woman glared even more angrily at me, and I looked back at her with what I hoped was a non-confrontational “I don’t understand why this is upsetting you so much” look on my face.

Here is the conversation that followed as best I recall it. The woman exclaimed, “The subway poles are not for climbing!” Before I could respond, she continued: “And if a black or Hispanic kid did that, everyone on this subway would be giving the kid a hard time and yelling at them to get off the pole. But because your kid is white, she can get away with it!” Wow. Not a perspective on this scenario that I had ever imagined. I answered, “I can tell you that not everyone on this subway would be giving a black or Hispanic kid a hard time for climbing the pole, because I know I wouldn’t – I’d think it was great. I don’t think it’s a problem for small kids to climb these poles when the train isn’t moving and the car isn’t crowded. But I really appreciate your sharing your perspective with me. I’m glad you told me what was going on for you while you were watching this, because I really didn’t understand it, and your way of thinking about this is something that I’d never considered. So thank you for telling me – it really gives me something to think about.” She answered, with a little less edge to her tone, “Well, it’s also dangerous for your kid; she could fall and get hurt.” I said, “That’s true, but because I know she’s a good climber and has done this lots of times, I’m not really worried about that.”

The woman said, “Look, I’m a single mother too [and here I interrupt the flow of the dialogue to say I have no idea how she correctly surmised I was a single mother, but perhaps she based her assumption on my not wearing a wedding ring]. And I’m Hispanic. And if you ever saw my Hispanic 7-year-old daughter climbing the subway pole, what do you think you’d say to her?!” I answered, “If it was clear to me that you were okay with it, I’m pretty sure I’d say, ‘You go, girl!’ But again, you are sharing a perspective on all this that never occurred to me, and I’m really glad we’re having a conversation about this.” And she smiled, arose from her seat, walked over to me with her hand extended and said, “Thank you for listening and trying to understand – I just feel like everything is different for kids of color. They just don’t get to do the things that white kids get to do.” And as the train pulled into the station, she and I shook hands warmly and I agreed that so much is different, unfairly and unjustly, for kids of color. The woman got off the subway and I was left feeling deeply grateful for the entire encounter, how it started and where it led, and hoping that someday my daughter and I will cross paths with her on the subway again, and her daughter will be with her, and our girls will each grab a subway pole and up they’ll both go.

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