The inhumanity train ride or where are the good white people?

For those of us in the northeast corner of the United States, the past month has just been one non-stop snow storm. Poor little Boston, the city I actually work in, looks like the snowpocalypse. The amount of snow in Massachusetts actually makes the snow we have in Maine (the state I legally reside in) look like child’s play and we have a lot of snow.

As one can imagine, the past month has been nothing short of a clusterfuck when it comes to travel and schedules…schedule, what’s that? The snow dates need snow dates at this point. Which is how I found myself on a train back to Maine on a Friday afternoon, the one day that I strive to be home in Maine. Yet when you are behind in work due to snow and the bookkeeper has retired and your 2014 financial records need to be closed out, you work when the snow allows.

The Friday afternoon train back to Maine is one of my least favorite trains of the week, a caustic mix of commuters, vacationers/daytrippers and others with the tension of high expectations in the air. This Friday’s train ride, sadly, did not disappoint. Considering that earlier in the week, I spent three-plus hours on a train that never even managed to get out of the state of Maine due to a broken-down freight train on the tracks (and ultimately ended up backing up all the way to where I live), the ride home was looking pretty uneventful and at only 30 minutes behind; pretty timely, and making me fairly happy…until it was time to exit the train at my stop.

As I am making my way to the door (mind you this is an Amtrak train) with my bags, I end up standing by a family that includes a young boy of 10 or so, a woman who appears to be the grandmother and on the other side of the aisle perhaps the boy’s mom and a sibling. Standing there, I noticed the grandmother and boy looking at me which honestly is nothing new. I am Black in Maine; looky-loos come with the territory. Depending on my mood, I ignore, smile or give the look of disapproval. Last night, my mind was a blank slate as it registered that the boy had just said something about Black people while giving me what we in my house call the look of stank. The grandmother leans over to the boy who then proceeds to say very loudly and clearly “Black people kill White people” his grandmother gave me a sympathetic look, the boy stared at me, behind me white people were queuing up to get off the train, the young white man in front of me looked away and adjusted his ear buds. In that moment, I felt my own humanity disappear. To be Black, to be othered has too often meant a white person, even a child, can snatch your humanity away just because of the color of your skin.

Yet I am a woman on a life journey, a journey to find my voice and demand my place at the table of humanity. So with little hesitation, I found myself leaning over with tears in my eyes, telling that boy that “Bad people kill people. Period.” I also told him that not all white people are good nor are all Black people bad. I asked him where he lived and he told me Winslow, Maine. I told him that the world is larger than Winslow and hopefully he would grow up and see that this world is filled with all kinds of people. The kid stared back at me in shock, the grandmother just looked at me and the man behind me said “Good for you for speaking up.” Excuse me…good for me? This is the world we inhabit now, where action is considered extraordinary because too often we choose no action.  We fear discomfort, we don’t want to lose our place or get messy so instead we bear witness to the dehumanization of others and offer tentative head pats. By the way, the man behind me was another Maine to Boston commuter whom I regularly see on the train.

When the train finally stopped and I got off, it hit me that I was more pissed off about the fact that a gaggle of white people had heard this kid and not one had the courage to speak up. Something that I have seen far too many times in recent years. As for the boy, clearly what he is exposed to in his life is setting him up for hateful and fear-based beliefs.

In the end, we all have choice: how are we living and what actions are we modeling for others in our lives. Words without direct actions have little meaning. We can claim all sorts of things but if our actions don’t support the words, we are lying to ourselves. To live fully and completely means we lean into a life where we don’t run from the messy or uncomfortable; where we put on our muck boots and brace for the mess. We stand in truth for truth and if justice is on our sides, we give no fucks. So I muse aloud, “Where are the good white people?” The ones who are willing to break the barriers of discomfort for truth and justice. I know there are some, but it seems at times that there are so few I can’t help but have moments in which I believe they are about as real as the superheroes in comic books and movies.

19 thoughts on “The inhumanity train ride or where are the good white people?”

    • I wish that I had taking a gamble to ride this very distressed DownEaster in this month of delays, cancellations …. just for the opportunity to confront this boy and his grandmother … of course some one should have spoke up ! Gut -sorry to hear that the child was a product of Maine !

  1. Below is a somewhat related experience I had a few months ago. Reading your post I had to check myself about not saying anything. I guess it was the very young age of the child.

    Thanks for casting a light on experiences of this sort which can ambush us in all kinds of public places. I especially appreciate your honesty in including the way such surprise, anger, hurt, righteous indignation and isolation brings tears. The assault is so deep, and the frustration so great that it’s a spontaneous physical response.

    • You are so right that the surprise, anger,righteous indignation and isolation bring tears. For a second there was even a sense of shame at being singled out so publicly. I think I spoke up because once I didn’t have the strength to do so but lately that feeling has vanished. I am sorry that you too have had a similar encounter. It shouldn’t be this way.

      • So true … children pick up clues from that environment that they are raised in …. I think that I would have confronted the adults that were with him at that time…..from the grandmother’s reaction I doubt if she was the source of his racism. But unfortunately there is a culture element in Maine that disapproves of such direct confrontation, even if this is warranted !

  2. This brought tears to my eyes. Your response was wonderful because it is true and it was objective and teacherly, and I totally agree with you that we white folks need to speak up more. Your piece has given me the confidence that it would be welcome should the situation occur. I hope one day that that little boy remembers fondly the lesson he learned last night. You’ll never know but I can see it sitting out there in his head 15 or 20 years from now, having been a positive influence.

  3. I’m trying to imagine what I would have said to this boy. I know that I would have shaken my head and muttered something under my breath… It would not have been enough. Racism is learned and he is mirroring his environment. I believe the only way to impact this child is for white people to speak up. Thank you for sharing and reminding.

  4. I want to say thank you for being so clear that my speaking up in such a situation wouldn’t be unwelcome. And then I feel like adding that damn, it shouldn’t be your responsibility to make that clear to white people.

  5. Have you ever though about moving to New Hampshire? Yes NH is the third whittest state behind Maine and Vermont but the southern portion of the state such as Nashua and Manchester seems to be somewhat diverse. Also you’d be closer to Boston, Massachusettes and it might be cheaper to live in NH and affordable compare to Massachusettes or Maine and no taxes when buying products. I’ve lived in Maine most of my live aswell, majority in the state captial Augusta which is 20 to 30 minutes from Winslow/ Waterville where that kid and his grandma are from. I hated every minute of living there, being non white myself and always wished to live in Portland where everything feels up to date. Most Augusta people’s mindset have never progress beyong the 1950’s or early 1960’s and 3/4th of the resident will never go to college or higher education. I’ve always looked at neighboring New Hampshire as better place to live than Maine. If you earn enough money at your job in Boston you can relocate from Biddeford, Maine to places in NH like Portsmouth, Hampton, Nashua, Exeter and Salem.

    • Knowing the Winslow/ Augusta region, I believe that Shay was correct in directly confronted the boy on the train…..simply because it would be hard to pinpoint exactly where he learned his racism. It could have been within his family or among his peers or even in his church community. This area unfortunately is still a bastion of white protestant fundamentalism. I was totally shocked when living in Augusta upon returning to Maine in 2005, not only at the prejudice targeted here to those persons of color — African, Spanish and Native but as well toward the regions French Canadian families !

      Unfortunately you see similar elements of Henry W.’s experience though out Maine…. including Portland. A chip on the shoulder, toward those with education or even those who act educated and a mean spirit direct toward others. As if they are determined to project their own self hatred toward others ! What to do about it is an individual decision.

  6. Well how exhausting it must be to have to face ignorance and racism so directly at any turn. Thank you for sharing this, and for your compassionate, dignified response. I pledge to speak out if I am a witness to such an event

  7. Too many White people thinking they can still get by muttering platitudes and shibboleths that’ll keep the darkies quiet and still make them look good with no action. That dog won’t hunt anymore but they want to pretend otherwise.

  8. This is exactly why I am hosting a book discussion of Debby Irving’s book “Waking Up White and Finding Myself in the Story of Race” at the Belfast (Maine) Free Library on March 2nd (6pm). This “conventional behavior” that keeps white people from standing up to inhumanity (the American way of “I’m good, don’t care about you”) is how implicit, explicit, and institutional racism thrives. When white people start looking within and changing this whiteness conditioning, we can become more effective allies in ending this travesty that is choking our nation.

    • Not sure if you are aware that Debby is a personal colleague and friend of mine. Her book is an awesome tool in starting real conversations about race.

      • No, I wasn’t aware of your relationship, but I am glad to know it. We are very excited about having these conversations up here in Belfast; her book blew my head wide open.

  9. The worst part, I feel, is the grandmother or mother not saying anything. I would have said something. How sad for that child to live in a world where he has been allowed to develop such ignorance filled ideas. I quoted these words in my highschool yearbook: “Nothing in all the world is more dangerous than sincere ignorance and conscientious stupidity”

    That situation had both – a sincerely ignorant child and conscientiously stupid parents and bystanders. infuriating and depressing.

  10. I’m sorry that you experienced this Shay. I’m not surprised that no one reacted and said anything. But I’m so incredibly proud of you for speaking out. That wasn’t easy especially when it seemed like no one had your back or was willing to stick his/her neck out. It’s just so interesting this myth of Black people looking White people. I just keep seeing images of strange fruit and wondering what kind of hallucinogenic drugs some folks are taking out here such that reality is so skewed for them. Anyway, I’m really proud of you. That took courage.

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