So…this happened. The following video shows an altercation on a TTC subway train in which a middle aged white woman sits on the feet of a young black man. The man is listening to earphones and looking at his phone. At first it’s hard to see but it becomes apparent that he had been sitting with the balls of his feet braced against the seat in front of him when she sat on top of his forefeet, physically preventing him from moving them.
This video made me feel physically ill. You can hear his anger turn to fear when he finally pushes her off and realizes how this is going to play out, a black man versus a white woman. “I shouldn’t be having to touch a lady.” And her smugness in her privilege is utterly revolting. She SAT ON A STRANGER. She PUT her body ON TOP of his body and refused to move it. Justifying her actions as a lesson in manners. WHO DOES THAT?? WHO FUCKING DOES THAT?? The answer, of course is: Someone with the confidence borne of a lifetime of privilege and the sense of entitlement that goes along with does.
The feet on the seat isn’t the issue here. The issue is that the woman appointed herself the manners police and instigated a physical altercation, something she was confident she could do without suffering any consequences because her white privilege meant she had never experienced systemic racism – the kind of racism that sees black boys shot to death for walking at night in a hoodie while white boys can commit mass murder and be arrested unharmed. The black man on the other hand endured this humiliation for almost a minute before finally resorting to physical aggression – knowing, because the knowledge is drilled into black boys starting in early childhood, that if things got out of hand, HE would at best be the one held responsible; at worst, arrested or attacked. We have no way of knowing if she chose him for her “lesson” because of his race, but we do know from experience that because of his race the situation was far more dangerous for him than for her.
(Image description: Screengrab from the video posted by Jay Shylo with the words “This is what White Privilege looks like” overlaid by PicklesINK.)
Then there’s the reporting. Every news report about this incident has focused on the feet on the seat and his language. Apparently there’s a bylaw; This young man could have been fined $235 for putting his feet on an empty seat. Perhaps he would have preferred that to being physically and verbally scolded by some stranger on the subway. According to the headlines like those in The Toronto Star, GlobalTV, and CityNews, this was an “etiquette lesson gone awry,” although I probably would have gone with, “physical assault on a stranger.” And every article quotes the part where he finally pours out his righteous anger as expletives; not the first half where he calmly and repeatedly asks her to “get off me, please,” and she smugly replies, “No.”
According to TTC officials, the woman was correct to hit the emergency stop after he pushed her off, because *that’s* when it turned into a physical altercation. Newsflash, friends: It became a physical altercation when she EFFING SAT ON HIM. TTC spokesperson also said passengers should use the alarm when they feel their safety is at risk, which was clearly not the case here, as the women who instigated the assault followed her victim in an attempt to continue her harassment as he left. And yes, I said assault, referring to HERS on HIM. Of course, if it had even occurred to him to hit the panic strip initially, I sincerely doubt officials or popular opinion would have been quite so understanding of his reasons. As activist and blogger Tasheka Lavann asks, “Are we saying that if I decide to put my feet on a seat…another passenger has the right to enter my personal space, sit on my feet and refuse to move…that’s the justification I am seeing across social media for this latest RACIST act right here in Canada — the notion that, somehow, this young man deserved to be harassed and assaulted.”
Jay Shylo, who recorded the assault, said that most of the passengers on the train agreed the woman seemed to have instigated the situation, targeting this man when there were many empty seats as well as another passenger with his feet up (no report on his race or ethnicity, but I’d be willing to hazard a guess). Shylo said, “I think what ignited her was that (the male passenger) was answering back.” How dare he! A black man getting lippy with her when all she did was deliberately cross a half-empty subway car to SIT ON HIM. “Both were verbally abusing each other. It got petty.” Oh. *THAT’S* when it got petty. At least Shylo recorded the disturbing incident and posted it online so everyone could see what really happened; with the caption “Ride the Rocket it’s entertaining *shrugging and smiling emojis* I’m not surprised at all that this happened on public transit.” Because LOLZ!!
Whoops. Slipped into angry sarcasm mode for a minute. I’m back now.
Make no mistake: Everything about this encounter was influenced by race. And the other passengers just passively sat and watched. I’m hearing from a lot of my (white) friends that they didn’t see race in this encounter, and that’s understandable. We don’t have to pay attention to race because our white privilege affords us the comfort of being colourblind. Read Unpacking the Invisible Backpack by Peggy McIntosh for a really excellent primer on how white privilege affects you every day. But I assure you that for any person of colour, and especially for the young man in the video, it is at the top of their minds, especially when the woman pushed the panic strip, because for a young black man any interaction with the authorities can potentially be life or death.
So here’s my call to action: White folks, we’ve got a shit ton of privilege, and with that privilege comes awesome responsibility. When you see something like this happening, for gods’ sake, call it out. Press the effing emergency stop YOURSELF and then stick around to tell the truth. Don’t just sit there. Act. Tell the world this is NOT OKAY. Because that is what white privilege should look like.
This post has been edited on February 25, 2017 to add further discussion of the ways that systemic racism and white privilege contributed to the situation. No text was deleted.