Tuesday, August 27, 2013

Essay: Riding the Metro Bus

The 50th Anniversary of the March on Washington, August 24th, 2013

On the 24th of August 2013, my five year old and I plan our trip to the Mall to see the March on Washington. She likes protests. Living in DC, she has been on a few marches and the whole family did a parody on the Occupy Movement for Halloween a couple of years ago. She was a protestor: “Share Share Share!” screamed her sign. My baby was a banker in a black suit and tie. I was Wall Street — I wore a brick wall made of cardboard with a green street sign and we perched the baby on my wall for photographs. My husband was a giant inflated bull.

We are looking at the March on Washington website. I read my daughter excerpts of Martin Luther King Jr.’s speech and then play the audio: “I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character.” She runs off to play. I think of the painting by Norman Rockwell: The Problem We All Live With. I want to talk to her about it, ask her if she remembers seeing it at the National Portrait Gallery, along with New Kids in the Neighborhood. Two stunning visuals of a segregated world from a child's perspective. 

We are a biracial family. I am an Indian Parsee Zoroastrian and my husband is a white Catholic American. I am not sure what box to check when I am confronted with most official forms in the U.S., which have a section, albeit non-mandatory, on race. Check all that apply: White, Black, Asian, American Indian, and then a separate question whether you are Hispanic. When I first came to the U.S. and had to fill in the social security application, I was puzzled. How do I classify myself in racial terms? In India I was used to ethnic and religious classifications, but racial classification seemed anachronistic. What was I? I was not white, even though Parsees sometimes refer to themselves as and I say this with some trepidation Aryans, as if the last century never happened and that’s an acceptable label. I was not black. I was Asian, but that was hardly a racial classification — out of all the races I was physically most dissimilar to Far East Asians. And although South Asians consider themselves to be a broad ethnic group, I can’t think of any other group that has every single racial type represented and then some.

After doing a degree in public policy I get it that data on race is very important for formulating policy in America. We are not living in a post-racial America and religion and race are the primary cleavages, if you set aside social class. But times are changing. When I first came here in 2004, I rarely saw a person of color in Georgetown. Not so any more. We have a Black President in the White House, we have restaurants buzzing with diversity on 14th street, and we are all learning to assimilate. Like ink spreading on a sheet of paper, North West DC is getting color in its cheeks.

As an Indian I am well attuned to the subject of color and how it enters into the everyday. When I was growing up, girls and boys were considered more likely to find eligible spouses if they were fair skinned. I had aunts who did not go outside when it was sunny and always wore long sleeves and avoided tea and coffee to keep their skin from darkening. The Indian fairness cream market, led by multinational behemoth Unilever's Fair & Lovely, is estimated at about $400 million in annual revenue and was most recently featured in the online edition of The Atlantic Monthly in an article by Elizabeth Segran. Matrimonial advertisements gloss over darker complexions as ‘wheatish.’ We all know the truth that a person cannot determine the color of his skin. Fairness creams can disfigure and lead to serious health issues, including cancer. And yet, like that elusive elixir of youth, lighter skin continues to be sought after in South Asian, Far Eastern and even some African cultures. Why?

In The Dangers of not Talking to your Children about Race, KJ Dell'Antonia of the New York Times explains that research shows that children become aware of skin color at a very young age. They won’t always manifest this knowledge, avoiding the subject if adults ignore it, which in turn magnifies its importance in their minds. But if adults address it, children reveal interesting observations of their own, often reflecting social biases, making it wiser to address race and color rather than letting it be an elephant in the room. My elder child is white like my husband and she has always been aware of this. When we bathed her when she was very little she would say, “I am the same color as daddy.” For a while she seemed to asking, “Why don’t you and I have the same skin?” I could tell it was something that preoccupied her and still does, particularly since my younger child has a skin tone similar to mine. There is no moral significance given to identifying these colors, just a sense I have that sometimes my daughter would like to be the same as me and at other times just like daddy. She is trying to understand how biology works and if her sister is somehow special because she shares her skin color with me.

I look up to find she’s back, ready for an explanation. “So mum, what is freedom?” I had asked her earlier if she knew what it meant.

“Can you imagine there was a time when kids who looked different from each other couldn’t go to school together?”

As if it’s the most preposterous thing, she rolls her eyes and says, “Oh Mum!" She adds, "I don’t like that.”

“Well,” I say, a little heavy handed, “that’s freedom, you are free to go to school with your friends. Tell your sister we are going on a bus ride today. Do you remember Rosa Parks? We can think of her on the bus.” A couple of weeks ago I had bought stamps with Rosa Parks’ face on them and my daughter and I watched a documentary on YouTube about who she was. Thinking of Rosa Parks always makes me emotional.

So we feed the girls breakfast—fresh local peaches from the Women’s Market in Bethesda, banana oatmeal—and pack our bags to head to the Mall. It takes about an hour of focused energy to get ready to go out with the kids. That hour does not include showers for the parents. We need to get out before nap time.

Checklist: water bottles for each of us; flax and buckwheat banana pancakes and raspberries for the girls; full change of clothes for them, in case they head into a fountain on the Mall; diapers, wipes, sunblock, hats. Big decision: which stroller? The easy to fold one that grandma insisted we would not be able to live without and gave the baby for her birthday—that really just fits one small kid, but allows the two year old to ride on the five year old’s lap for short distances—or the heavy-duty Bob jogging stroller we have on loan from a kind friend, which allows both girls to be pushed uphill without breaking my wrists. (Since our rental apartment burnt down in October 2012, we have had more offers of strollers from our generous community than one family can possibly use).

The girls are very excited to take the bus to Farragut Square, just North of the White House. From there we plan to walk a mile or so South to the Lincoln Memorial to experience the March on Washington, which began at 9am on New Jersey Avenue and will end at the Reflecting Pool at the Lincoln Memorial, where we will greet it. Fifty years ago on the 28th of August 1963, Martin Luther King gave his ‘I have a dream’ speech from the steps of the Lincoln Memorial after the original March on Washington.

We all tumble into the N6 bus. I am hauling the stroller folded up into its awkward shape, and find the wheels don’t lock in this position. I struggle with it at the back door and realize it is blocking access so I move it into the handicapped section, which is empty. It wobbles and I am afraid that it’s going to brush against someone. I have observed that in America people like their space respected more so than in India, where strangers will just pick up your children to help out and seat them on their laps. Luckily the bus is not full. The kids and my husband find a spot to settle down and my husband keeps a hand on the toddler so she doesn’t topple over with the jolting of the bus. I decide it is safer to open up the stroller and lock the wheels so it doesn’t slide into anyone. It’s not ideal but there is enough space in the gangway to walk by.

A lady from our apartment building who is riding on the bus sympathizes, “It’s a lot to do, isn’t it.

“It’s not so bad,” I say. I am thinking of Rosa Parks. We are riding a bus on a historic anniversary. Fifty years ago we couldn’t have all sat where we liked, mixed into this bus, black, white, me and mine. This is a special day.

But then another voice pipes up, surprising me, “You shouldn’t bring that stroller on the bus.” The tone is offensive.

A stranger starts to berate me. “You are taking up two people’s seats, you could hurt someone if they trip over that thing.” I count at least ten vacant seats around us.

I try to justify myself. We need the stroller for the kids since we have more than three miles of walking ahead of us. She cuts me off, “You are disrespecting everyone by riding the bus. You should have taken a cab.

Sure I could have. I could have even taken my own car. How could I explain to her that on this day, this of all other days, riding the bus was symbolic, our own small, token homage to Ms. Parks. 

People stack bicycles on the front of buses, holding up traffic while they haul them on, we regularly have wheelchairs on the bus that are bigger than the stroller. Bus drivers have to come over to help out all the time. I feel the woman is being unreasonable but she continues to scold me. My eyes begin to smart. The other passengers are embarrassed and look away. The woman is being mean spirited and I feel hurt. When I express that to her she backs off. Later, someone reassures me, “You did the right thing. It is important to stand up to bullies. Maybe next time she won’t be nasty to another mother.” When I remark that other people on the bus seemed to be uncomfortable, he says, “People don’t like conflict. But you could tell they thought you were doing the right thing.”

Every time we are in a public space we have a choice. We can voice our opinions kindly and respectfully, or we can make a person uncomfortable and defensive. This lady was rude. Her opinion could have been voiced differently, but since it was not, I also have the right to push back.

It is interesting how, now that I am a parent, I have become more aware of petty intolerance. Like the time my friend was approached by a resident at our building complex who told her, “You are not welcome here, children were never allowed to use the pool before.” And the man sat and stared threateningly at the family, making them so uncomfortable that they had to leave.

This sort of community policing has to be seen for what it is — it is curtailing the freedom of certain groups in public places. We all need to look out for our communities, but not at the expense of other groups living respectfully in a shared space. Communities that support vigilantes are not necessarily safer, they can be hostile and sometimes even violent. They assume that parents are not doing their job, and at another extreme, that kids like Trayvon Martin do not belong and need to be monitored.

It’s a subtle thing. I am not likening my ride on the bus to Rosa Parks or to Trayvon Martin or to the men and women who cannot get the jobs and opportunities they seek because of their race. The small battles I have fought in my community — for example, disabling the ban on young children using the pool — were supported by laws like the Fair Housing Act, that have been put into place by people like Ms. Parks.

I grew up in a new India struggling to teach its citizens the values of freedom and equality. In my school, J B Petit, differences in ethnicity and social class were played down and hidden behind school uniforms; it was drilled into us as children, “United we stand, divided we fall.”  Which is why I assert, I have not suffered any form of racial discrimination, and I imagine my children will probably not be discriminated against. We are likely more free and entitled than any generation before us. However, I do see the need for more balanced communication in public places and in our communities, so that we can relax and enjoy one another. Negative interactions make one feel small, unwelcome, on edge. They make us wary, petty, cautious, and after many such experiences, a person can become angry and militant.

The bus stops to pick up a handicapped man. I fold up the stroller again so I can move out of the way. My husband gets up and takes it over, putting it on his seat and I sit with the baby. The man who takes my place is in a wheelchair. He looks at the girls and smiles. I smile back at him.

But I know the battle for a safe, just community is not over. Many boys are still especially at risk on our streets in America just like women are especially at risk in both public and private spaces in India. Near the Lincoln Memorial, Trayvon Martin’s story is on many placards along with the same issue that raged fifty years ago: jobs. In every single age group, black men and women have double the unemployment rate of whites in the same category (See the Bureau of Labor Statistics). On the news another woman is gang raped in India. As we walk around the Mall, people have their signs upDream in Color—their faces shine and the spirit of the March washes over me and calms me. Like Martin Luther King, Jr. I too “refuse to believe that the bank of justice is bankrupt. We refuse to believe that there are insufficient funds in the great vaults of opportunity of this nation. So we have come to cash this check — a check that will give us upon demand the riches of freedom and the security of justice. We have also come to this hallowed spot to remind America of the fierce urgency of now.”

1 comment:

  1. Today, on the anniversary of the March on Washington, August 28th, 2013, Obama said: "The March on Washington teaches us that we are not trapped by the mistakes of history, that we are masters of our fate. But it also teaches us that the promise of this nation will only be kept when we work together. We'll have to reignite the embers of empathy and fellow feeling, the coalition of conscience that found expression in this place 50 years ago."