03/14/2013 12:05 pm ET Updated May 14, 2013

Riding Race

I would like to share a little story about race. It is nothing and everything, merely an incident neither inconsequential nor unique.

Here is what happened, as best as I recollect. This episode occurred in San Francisco, on a weekday, probably about 7:30 a.m. I was headed to work after visiting the gym, a two stop ride on the Muni train. I wasn't even paying attention to my surroundings; I was studying the stylized map of the public transit system posted on the far wall, as we lurched down the rails.

To the left, there was an African-American woman, maybe in her 30s, with a girl, I suppose her daughter. Across the aisle was an African-American man, perhaps with them but probably not.

At the Powell station, a Caucasian man boarded. I'd guess him to have been in his 50s. He looked perfectly ordinary, with glasses, less hair than he had had earlier in life. He was dressed in a coat and tie, which is not as common as it once was. The outfit was not expensive, and he'd tied the tie with a big fat knot and a short length that suggested to me he was more concerned with wearing a tie than with how exactly he wore it. He was pulling a cheap piece of roll-aboard luggage.

He sat himself down.

A moment before we pulled away, another African-American man entered, a young man maybe in his 20s with dreadlocks, and he sat down opposite the white man. And a heavier Hispanic man in a sweatshirt and sweatpants, or maybe an Arab-American, jumped in just before the door closed; he decided to remain standing.

There were approximately a half dozen other people on board, scattered in various seats. Nothing special about any aspect of this situation.

Except as soon as the African-American man plopped down (an apt description, as accuracy counts here), the fellow with the dreds, the white man stood up, took his roll-aboard, and moved all the way to the opposite end of the car.

Whereupon the African-American man said, to nobody and everybody, "What's the matter? Too much color for you?"

This course of events was over in less time than it has taken me to describe them.

The context of the San Francisco Muni Metro of today is not the same as the New York City subway of 1984. That was when Bernhard Goetz became a vigilante hero to some for pulling out his revolver and shooting four youths who allegedly were harassing him. I've never seen violence, or even any threat of it, on the San Francisco Muni Metro. I've only seen troubled souls from time to time, more dangerous to themselves than anybody else.

Now, I have no idea what anybody involved was thinking or feeling. I do not presume to judge who was hostile to whom.

For all I know, the white man didn't like where he had settled initially, for reasons unrelated to whom he found surrounding him. If he were asked, he could offer an explanation that was not related to race; it was a random moment -- conceivably he was just a tourist with jitters. I would wager, however, that the African-American young man, with the dreds, had had experiences along these lines before and would again. If I were he, I would have reacted too.

All of these people were strangers to me, as presumably they were to one another aside from the mother and her daughter. I likely will never see them again. But each of us has seen others who look vaguely similar.

That's the problem. We constantly re-enact scripts of racial memory and racial speculation. The trivial reflects the profound.

Although I have tried to set forth the facts neutrally, I cannot be neutral. I carry with me whatever images are rattling around in the back of my head, prejudices I myself am not quite aware of or might be embarrassed by. Sometimes, Asian-Americans are described as "neutral" in racial terms -- as Judge Lance Ito, a Japanese-American, was characterized when he presided over the O.J. Simpson "trial of the century" with its racial drama -- but I have my own experiences of growing up in an overwhelmingly white suburb and subsequently being affiliated for a decade with a historically black college/university (HBCU).

My description thus cannot help but be incomplete. Studies show eyewitnesses cannot be trusted. My account no doubt omits the crucial details of the scene that have been perceived from a perspective that necessarily is personal. I am more sympathetic to one party than I am to the other, though if I am honest I cannot deny that I could imagine myself as either.

Even so, I am not sure what to make of this vignette. Whatever else it may have been, the interaction I observed was negative for all concerned; or, at best, tragicomic. I am saddened by it, and I wonder what if anything I might be able to do to change the world.