I have a theory that most altercations in New York City would be avoided if some New Yorkers simply moved elsewhere. It's a crowded place. It's a noisy place. And some of us just aren't cut out for it.
I live next door to an octogenarian with remarkable hearing who likes to bang on the wall of my bedroom when she thinks I'm "too noisy." She bangs on the wall if I watch TV before bed. She bangs on the wall when my alarm goes off for work at 6:30 a.m. Once, as I was lying in bed drifting off to sleep, I sneezed... and she banged on my wall. I'm not kidding.
This old bat shouldn't be cooped up in New York City. She should reside in a suburb, far from other people, nestled in a house that's separated from other houses not by a thin wall, but by a vast lawn. The same goes for those who can't deal with accidentally getting bumped into on crowded subway cars. They should live in automotive cities, where they can transport themselves to work, alone in an SUV. Or, if they must remain in New York, they should refrain from public transit and instead be chauffeured around Gotham via taxicab. They would be a lot happier, and, goddamn it, so would I.
I encountered one of these subway scrooges this past May. It was around 9 a.m., so the train was stuffed with commuters like me. I was schlepping a rather sizable satchel that I need for my job, clutching it as close to my body as possible, so as not to be "that guy." The train jerked out of the station, and, seeing as I was too far from a pole to steady myself with one, I lost my footing, and my big bag and I bumped into a young woman. Judging from the classy cream dress suit she was sporting, she was on her way to work too. I apologized for my spill. She got angry. I told her to calm down. She got angrier. I called her an idiot -- my one misstep -- and I turned away from her, brushing her once more with my satchel in the process. That's when she called me a faggot.
"You're really gonna do that?" I asked, floored. "You're really gonna use that word?"
"This is not what I paid my money for, faggot." (I believe "being grazed by the body of a gay guy" was the antecedent of "this" in that sentence.)
My eyes locked with hers. "I would never call you your word." (She was black.)
"What, nigger?" she scoffed. "You're a faggot."
And then she kept flippantly flinging that F word at me. She must have said it at least ten times. I cautioned her that everyone on the whole train heard what she was saying and that she looked cruel. She told me that she didn't care what people thought of her. I told her that that much was abundantly clear. Thankfully, she got off at the next stop.
It stung to be called that word. Sure. But, to be honest, that word had lost some of its punch, because that was the fifth time I'd been called a faggot in a year. (To be precise, one of the previous jerks actually called me a "sissy Jew," not a faggot. This hurt my feelings, yes, but I was also terribly impressed by the accuracy of his name-calling! He hit the nail right on the head! How did he know?)
What really stung about the subway incident was that no one on the train came to my defense. In fact, once the hateful young woman left the train, none of my fellow passengers even came up to me to say, "I'm really sorry that happened to you," or "Are you okay?" There are tons of videos on YouTube of brave MTA riders stepping in front of helpless victims and acting all "Be gone, before somebody drops a house on you too!" Had someone been recording the events of my being harassed on the train that day, it would not have resulted in one of those videos.
I left that event quite distraught, so I took to Facebook. I rarely use Facebook to air my laundry, dirty or otherwise, but I felt it was my duty to tell the world what had happened, so that, should someone else find themselves in a similar situation, perhaps that story could have a different ending.
In my Facebook post, I pointed out that, not only was my harasser on the train a person of color, but every person who had ever called me a faggot -- or a "sissy Jew" -- was also a person of color. Of the five, four were black, and one was Latino. I explained that there's something almost cannibalistic about a member of one marginalized group flinging contemptuous language at someone from another. Like a gay man calling transgender people "weird," or a Jewish woman complaining about "all those Hispanics at Costco." (I have witnessed both of these hate micro-crimes.) I almost would rather be called a faggot by a douche-y, straight, white frat boy than by an African-American woman.
Now, if I thought that being called a faggot by a fellow member of the Fraternity of Oppressed Peoples was bad, that was nothing compared to another phenomenon that my post brought out in two of my Facebook friends.
A few minutes after my musings went live on Facebook, I received a hysterical call from a family friend, who said, "Aaron! I can't believe that happened to you! Who does such a thing? You don't even seem it!" (And, with that, the hysterical family friend's internalized homophobia was exposed!)
Then, the day after the subway incident, a distant acquaintance wrote a comment on the post, which actually began sweetly. "Aaron," he counseled me, "you just know who you are, a kind and genuine man. When you look in the mirror you are content and can feel good about who you are. Imagine being that hateful piece of trash who has to be her everyday. What a horrible angry existence [sic] she has. You are stronger, better and more tolerant than a person such ignorance." I'm not sure what a "person such ignorance" is, but awwwww! Sweet, no?
After that, though, it got racist: "How she enjoys her life living off our government, visiting her sweet and kind family in prison and looking in her mirror seeing hate." (Yikes! Talk about "such ignorance," amirite?)
To be fair, this guy is kind of nuts. His Facebook posts primarily consist of articles about how Obama is a Muslim that are so 2008 -- but, still. His words are not cool. They don't reflect his purported championing of tolerance. They have the situation entirely backward.
Why did these two individuals become discriminatory and racist in their attempt to show support for me? Why did they exhibit closed-mindedness as they cheered on my call for open-mindedness? Why did they put human beings into boxes in response to my plea for unpacking?
On December 3rd, I came home and turned on CNN to see crowds gathering all over New York, protesting the grand jury's decision to not indict Daniel Pantaleo. I watched the news coverage for a few minutes before I was seized both by feelings of comradeship and by my liberal I'm-not-doing-enough guilt. I put on my boots and my coat and I was out the door. I'm deeply glad that I went to Times Square that night to join a little but fierce group of my fellow citizens in railing against an incident of bigotry and oppression, which is yet another chapter in a centuries-old story that is far too many chapters long.
But I must report that I saw behavior at that march which reminded me of the way those two individuals responded to the story of my subway incident, and I was disappointed.
I refused to cheer along with the crowd as they chanted, "Fuck the police!" I watched from afar as a group of young men screamed in the faces of police officers -- most of them police officers of color -- and accused them of complicity in the death of Eric Garner. They implied that these officers agreed with the grand jury's decision. "Aren't you ashamed of yourself?" they kept shouting. The police officers might be ashamed of their fellow officer, of the system to which they belong, but... ashamed of themselves? Why? They didn't do anything. And why did these protestors assume that these cops weren't on their side? For all they knew, these officers were as upset as they were. And, at the end of the day, don't we want police officers to be benevolent and progressive? Aren't good cops the only people who can usher this issue into a new racism-free era? Isn't "Fuck the police" the totally wrong message?
Fear and anger breed bigotry. Look at the lead-up to the Holocaust and that is crystal clear. But, to respond to a hate crime by, out of fear and anger, lumping all people like the perpetrator together with that perpetrator? That's pretty much the same behavior.
I must admit, though, that I fall into this trap myself. After an entire lifetime of stomaching fundamentalist Evangelical talking heads, my mind will sometimes assume that all Christians who speak with a southern dialect -- actually, all Christians period -- hate gay people. After being called a faggot by Hispanic and African-American people more than a few times, my mind will sometimes assume that that person with black or brown skin sitting across from me on the subway must hate me because I'm gay.
Tonight, I was on the train home with a friend, and the subway car was packed as tightly as the last subway car I told you about. My friend and I realized that he worked with someone with whom I once went on a few dates, and that guy was horrible to me. So I made some funny bitter comments about the dude: "Next time you see Evan, tell him I say bye." "Maybe, if you have some free time, you can help him pop some of the blackheads on his nose." Stuff like that. All of the people surrounding my friend and I were black. And as I talked to my friend about this guy I dated, instantly outing myself, I could swear I felt these people, inches away from me, cringing.
But they weren't cringing. They didn't care! My mind made that up.
The urge to respond to bigots with bigotry is natural, but it's misguided. It's a fool's defense mechanism, a failed attempt at a syllogism: "This person exhibited malice toward me. This person is one of those kinds of people. Therefore all of those kinds of people will exhibit malice toward me in the future, so be on guard!" Terrorists attacked the Twin Towers. Those terrorists were Muslims. Therefore, all Muslims are terrorists, so be on guard? No. Not all Muslims are terrorists. Not all Christians are homophobes. Not all African-Americans are homophobes. And not all police officers are racists.
Islam, Christianity, and American policing all have systematic flaws that promote violence and/or bigotry. There's no doubt about that. We can notice trends and work to eradicate the root problems of which they're symptomatic. We can fight to see justice carried out in a courtroom. And, until attitudes have evolved, we can even go about our lives cautiously, as young men of color have unfortunately learned to do. But assuming that a police officer is a racist is the cognitive cousin of a police officer assuming that all young black men are thugs. We must treat every situation as an individual phenomenon and each person we encounter as the single human being that they are. They are not the other people who look like them. If we don't do that, then, as we liked to say a decade ago, "the terrorists have won."