Living outside of the small, safe confines of Bluffton, Ohio unleashes unfamiliar experiences I can only relate to from stereotypes I have heard all my life. I am ashamed that I thought I could use a racial stereotype about the city in this particular account from the bus the other day.
I had just gotten off work, and did not want to miss the bus coming in the next two minutes. Sprinting to the bus stop wearing a pencil skirt, ear buds slipping, and purse flying, I saw the bus two blocks away. Just as I had reached the bus stop, the bus had arrived. I panted a “good afternoon” to my bus driver and walked to the back of the bus. Sitting at the back of the bus is a way of showing courtesy to those who need to sit in the front. As I sat down, still out of breath, I settled into a relaxed position, ready for a long ride through traffic home to Brookland. After a few minutes, a middle-aged African American gentleman sitting across from me got my attention. I paused my music to hear:
“I’m sorry to disturb you, miss, but my phone is frozen and I’m trying to get ahold of my girlfriend. Can I use yours if I give you a few bucks?”
I had heard on the loudspeakers of the bus and the metro to keep your belongings close to you, as there have been cases of thieves running out at a convenient stop with your phone, wallet, purse, you name it. The bus was just about to stop when he asked me, so I looked the gentleman in the eye, and replied, “I’m sorry, not today.”
In his eyes I saw the disappointment he must face almost every day. In this moment I contributed to the lack of trust from those around him based on his skin color. He moved on to the person in front of me, a young African American man also listening to music on his earbuds, and I saw this man agree to let him use his phone to contact his girlfriend. The man borrowing the phone had a brief conversation, and at the end of the call he offered some quarters to the young man who had offered him the phone. When the young man did not accept the money, I saw the biggest difference between this man and myself.
Afterward, I tried to justify my denial with, “I would have done that to anyone who asked me. My phone is low on charge anyway. How could I know what his intentions were?” Yet I still see that millisecond transformation of disappointment in his eyes as I write now. There is a part of me that knows my internal racial bias had a significant role in my refusal to help the middle-aged man on the bus.
When is it street smarts, and when is it racism?