They say every moment is a learning opportunity. But I hate when those moments happen when I’m half awake and grumpy. Last week, I was taking my bike onto BART for my ever-so-wonderful and all-to-early morning commute from West Oakland to San Francisco. Though I am one of those pesky bikers that often sneak onto trains just a few minutes before I’m allowed to in order to get to my morning meeting at work on time, on this particular morning I was actually on BART at a legally-allowed time. So, onto BART I go, through the doors with the intention of parking my bike next to the door and out of the way when the doors opened at Embarcadero. As I moved my bike back against the doors, a women of color began scolding me for being in her space and for being an idiot biker on BART – where I shouldn’t even be. I immediately became defensive, reciting my monologues about bikes being legal on BART and advocating for my right to the most out of the way space and blah blah blah… She then countered, asking if I thought that just because I got on at West Oakland I was some sort of badass.
And that’s when it hit me. Shame. I went from self-righteousness and indignation that my prerogative was being questioned to embarrassment that I hadn’t realized before that moment that I was in a racially charged situation. And shame that I had belligerently taken up space like a white person. Taking up space like a white person. I know that’s a loaded thing to say, so let me unpack it a little. What I mean by that statement is that I ignored my impact on her because it was inconvenient to getting the thing I wanted. Which isn’t a uniquely white thing to do, but it’s an easy thing to do from a place of privilege because privileged people are used to taking up space and having society defend them in getting what they want. And, then, when she attempted to defend the space she had already been occupying before I came along, I reacted like a “virtuous” victim and turned her into the aggressor, which is also a really predictable pattern that folks socialized as white and female act out in interracial dynamics. It comes up a lot around the concept of white women tears. And then add to this mix the fact that I am a white person currently living in the gentrifying black neighborhood of West Oakland, tacitly participating in housing trends that are making it more difficult for folks of color to find safe and affordable housing. I forget that sometimes my mere presence is an affront, a rude reminder of the unearned privilege I have to inhabit pretty much any neighborhood I choose to.
I responded that no, I didn’t think I was a badass. And I moved my bike away from her spot, but hovered rudely close to her as I simmered in more emotions than I could efficiently process. Eventually, I checked myself and moved away, giving both of us space.
In retrospect, I can see multiple things going on in our interaction. Though I could easily minimize my personal role in the situation by blaming my culture and conditioning, there is also individual responsibility there. I was a person, raised in a system that normalizes oppression, that made a choice to be oppressive to a another person. Of course, in recognizing my volition, there is the potential to get bogged down in a lot of shame and anger that aren’t going to serve me or her or the world. But as we discussed in our last White Noise dialogue, I am learning to differentiate between action and identity (between ‘doing something bad’ and ‘being something bad’). If I have done an inherently oppressive thing, it does not mean I am an inherently oppressive person. Rather, owning my actions affords me the opportunity to be vulnerable, to fuel meaningful conversations, and to recognize my power to act differently next time.
As a white person who is actively working to uproot the deeply embedded oppressor dynamics that have been hard-wired into me by my culture of white supremacy and as a cis-gendered female learning to more confidently take up space in a world that makes it dangerous to take up space, it gets confusing sometimes. My instincts are often at odds. Luckily, in many of my close relationships with folks of color, I am afforded a generous room for mistakes, apologies, learning and forgiveness. And, as a white female, who loves to care-take and make everything better, it is also a good lesson to learn that sometimes when I hurt people, I don’t get to fix it. I just get to live and learn – and then work that much harder to transform the oppressive systems I live and participate in.
But, to the woman on BART, I at least want to say that I’m sorry. That was totally your space. I’ll try to be a little more awake next time.