I was riding home from work on the elevated train through the West Side of Chicago. Feeling tired and a little fidgety, I shifted in my seat and my phone fell out of my lap and onto the floor. I bent to pick it up, but another man who was closer said, “I got it,” leaning out of his seat and grabbing the phone. Once he had picked it up, I expected he would turn to me and hand me the phone. Instead, he continued to rise from his seat and walked towards the train doors which had just opened. Startled and confused, I shuffled awkwardly after him, clutching my work bag and jacket which had been resting in my lap. As he walked through the train doors and onto the platform, I protested, “That’s my phone!” reaching my hand towards his to pull the phone away from him. He twisted toward me, replying, “No that’s my phone!” He showed me the front of the phone, then turned it over, only for me to realize…he didn’t have my phone. It was his. “I’m so sorry,” I said, the train doors closing with him outside and me in. I stumbled back to my seat, my face flushed with embarrassment. Some other people nearby stated, “That was his phone,” and I immediately realized that I had my phone the whole time, trapped between my coat and bag as I cradled them in my arms.
The rest of my ride home, I tried to shrink into the seat, mortified at how I had accused this man. And uppermost in my mind was the question of how race was involved. See, I am white and this man is Black. Had I accused this man of stealing my phone because he was Black? Would my reaction have been different had he been a white man? A Black woman? A white woman? I didn’t think so, but how could I know for sure? And I couldn’t help imagining the interaction through his eyes and the eyes of other passengers. I was lucky he had been a relatively calm person in a relatively calm mood, or I could have provoked a heated verbal exchange at the very least.
If we white people are honest, this lack of certainty is a core dilemma of our racial interactions. It would be easy for me to assert that how I treated the man had nothing to do with race – that my reaction, embarrassing or not, had to do with my response to another human being, not my response to a Black man. But unless I have undergone this exact interaction with a white person, how can I know? How can I know for sure what I would have done? This humility is a vital trait for us white people to develop in relating to people of other races. We are not certain. We can’t be certain. We can imagine. We can ask questions. We can learn.
So although I am quite certain the man on the train that day will never read these words, I will write them anyway:
Sir, I apologize for accusing you of stealing my phone. I wish I had been able to trust you as a fellow human being. I do not believe I treated you differently because of how I perceived your race, but the truth is I don’t know. I was wrong to treat you in this way. And if my accusation seemed racist to you, I certainly understand why. Although you cannot know whether I am being truthful with you, I promise to continue examining my own conscious and unconscious beliefs, and to work toward dismantling the systems of oppression that enable racist beliefs and policies in our society.
Some might read this and respond, “This situation is so small… You are making a big deal out of nothing.” And it is true that this is a minor incident on a single day. Even if the man I accused thought I was being racist, he’s probably not dwelling on the incident now. And I don’t intend to dwell on it either. But our lives are constructed out of minor incidents just like this. A Black man who has these types of experiences over and over could easily come to see racism inherent in this society. And a white man like myself who just shrugs off an incident like this without reflecting on it perpetuates the casual racism that we need to stamp out. So let’s not belabor this situation. Let’s just treat it with the stance of reflection and humility that it deserves.
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