"Listen when I talk to you!”: How white entitlement marred my trip to a Ferguson teach-in

A nightmarish train ride reminds me why too many white people don’t get how short black America’s fuse is right now

Published December 17, 2014 11:45PM (EST)

        (<a href='http://www.shutterstock.com/gallery-160669p1.html'>Ollyy</a> via <a href='http://www.shutterstock.com/'>Shutterstock</a>/Salon)
(Ollyy via Shutterstock/Salon)

On Friday, I was on the train to New York to do a teach-in on Ferguson at NYU. Beats headphones on, lost in thought, peering out the window, I suddenly saw a white hand shoving my work carry-on toward me. Startled, I looked up to see the hand belonged to a white guy, who was haphazardly handling my open bag, with my laptop perched just inside to make space for himself on the seat next to me.

That he wanted the seat on the now full train was not the problem. That he assumed the prerogative to place his hands on my bag, grab it, shove it at me, all while my computer was unsecured and peaking out, infuriated me. I said to him, “Never put your hands on my property.”

His reply: “Well, you should listen when I talk to you.” That line there, the command that when he, whoever he was, spoke, I should automatically listen encapsulates the breadth of the battle against racism we have to fight in this country.

Buoyed by his own entitlement, his own sense of white male somebodiness, this passenger never even considered that he might simply try harder to get my attention before putting his hands on my stuff. His own need to control space, his own sense of entitlement to move anything in his way even if it held something of value to another person, his belief that he had the right to do whatever he needed to do to make the environment conform to his will are all hallmarks of white privilege.

In the reverse scenario, a black man would never get on the train, snatch up a white woman’s bag, and shove it in her face. But then black women are rarely entitled to the courtesies proffered to white women, and black people never presume they are entitled to occupy interracial spaces so aggressively.

To have a white man in 2014 demand that I listen when he speaks is the height of racial disrespect and indignity. To have a white person shove my belongings to the side rather than simply get my attention and ask my permission is an unnecessary level of disrespect, one that conveys yet again that their needs matter more than my own.

I do not exist to make white people comfortable. The fact that I know that and act like it makes white people even more uncomfortable.

Some will argue that I cannot generalize ideas about white entitlement from the action of one jerk on the train. After all, people get into petty squabbles on the train all the time. Let us not forget, however, that the civil rights movement was catalyzed by a squabble over a seat on a bus. I’m no Rosa Parks, of course. But what these connected histories teach us is that the right to occupy public accommodations unharassed is a right black people fought for. Died for. Endured centuries of indignity and white entitlement for. Battles over how we share public space are foundational to the narrative of race in this country.

Still I am struck by the utter cluelessness of this guy on the train, by the way in which snatching up my belongings and shoving them at me seemed like an entirely reasonable thing for him to do.  Mere seconds after this exchange, he looked at me frantically as he patted his pockets. “I can’t find my cellphone!” He knew I didn’t have it, but what he wanted from me was empathy and, perhaps, assistance. As I fought back the urge to pummel this man, it occurred to me that far too many white people really don’t get how short black America’s collective fuse is in this moment.

In the words of Melle Mel, Don’t push me cuz I’m close to the edge, I’m trying not to lose my head. 

My eighth grade language arts teacher once said to our class, “Human nature doesn’t change very much over time.” For some reason, more than 20 years later, that axiom sticks with me. Stuck on the precipice wondering “where we go from here,” I am honestly shocked that we are even here in the first place. You see, I really am an optimist. Despite being a student of history, despite having spent probably thousands of hours at this point reading about the long history of racial brutalities and indignities against black people, I am a believer. A believer in progress. A believer in good. Maintaining faith in anything good is generally not the province of academics, for whom cynicism is the price of the ticket.

But here we are. Mark Bittman asked at the New York Times this week, “Is it bad enough yet?” The old adage goes that when white America sneezes, black America catches cold. It might be more accurate to say that black America has walking pneumonia at this point. Is progress a myth?

The fact that our civil rights history has so firmly receded to the background that this white man had no sense of the racial irony of him being a jerk to a black woman on a train tells me that we are more vulnerable than ever to repeating our sordid racial history.

If you have ever taught college students, you’ll learn that they are quick to tell you how different their generation is from your own. Particularly around questions of race, late millennials believe wholeheartedly that rabid racism was the province of their grandparents or of the occasional extremist.   But they are not the first generation to believe that myth. Those of us born on the cusp of generation X and generation Y (1980 for me) also believed that a world constructed of “colored people,” as my grandmother called us, and white people was a thing of the past.

Most of my childhood and teenage friends were white. I slept over at the houses of white friends and to this day still count some of the white people of my teenage life as friends. The same is true for my big cousins, reared nearby in the small rural towns that flanked my own. High school students in the 1980s, my boy cousins had a mixed-race crew of country boy friends, that played ball of various kinds together in addition to hunting and fishing and riding four-wheelers. The ordinariness of those friendships is only remarkable when one considers that the schools that they attended had only integrated in the decade prior. The swiftness with which those generations of folks born in the late 20th century embraced racial integration interpersonally in unlikely small-town rural Southern places makes this moment harder to ponder.

Even as we grew up and the political fissures became more apparent,  we staved off the precarity of these formative relationships, by believing in the basic goodness and humanity of each other.

I have seen white and black people treat each other like human beings. White people who are Republicans, black people who are Democrats.  So despite my clarity on the cancer that is white supremacy, much of my endless patience with white people and simultaneous lack of patience with white people is rooted in a foundational belief that they can do better.

Yet, in so many more ways than one, it seems that we have returned to a world in which whiteness is marked much less by a benign disregard for black humanity and much more by a malignant denial of black humanity. My teacher’s words, human nature doesn’t change very much, echo in my head.

Last week, a series of aggregate Washington Post polls revealed that white American faith in the police has increased significantly since August. In fact, white confidence in the ability of the police to treat people equally based on race is the highest on record in the nearly 20 years since the Washington Post has collected such data.

How is it that 50,000 people showed up to march in the streets of New York City to protest racialized police brutality in the same week that white confidence in the police reached a new record?

What kind of America is this? How are white people so oblivious to black pain and frustration? How are they so lacking in empathy?

I think I have to conclude that they aren’t oblivious. They are no more oblivious to black pain than slave masters were when they ripped families apart. They are no more oblivious than the white families I see on those old lynching postcards, hoisting children on their shoulders, smiling for a better look at the camera.

I know these are extreme examples. But this is my point. We are told to believe that white America has learned the lesson of these past eras. We are told to believe that the majority of the country understands these acts to be unconscionable. We are told that white barbarism is a thing of the past. And yet, what we have seen over the last few months is a case study in 21st century white barbarism. Alongside a procession of lynched black bodies, we have witnessed sham grand jury proceedings that sound exactly like the sham trials that used to precede lynchings.  And much like our white forebears reassured “outside agitators” that all was well, most of white America moves along thinking not only that all is well, but that this is how things should be. They ignore the way that our current system of mass incarceration is simply a remix of the convict leasing system that grew out of slavery.  They ignore the increasing wealth gap between white families and black families. They are oblivious to all the ways the old playbook has been not discarded but simply updated for a new era.

What I envy about the prior racial era is the explicit nature of racial animus. In this moment we are saddled with the task not only of surviving widespread and deadly racial discrimination but also proving that things are “racial” to begin with.

I return yet again to what my teacher taught me. Human nature doesn’t change very much. And since white supremacy has created a world in which white people are the only ones who are acknowledged as human, I conclude that what my teacher really taught me, perhaps inadvertently, is that white people don’t change very much over time. Armed with the severity of that truth, the question of the hour remains, “Where do we go from here?”

By Brittney Cooper

Brittney Cooper is a contributing writer at Salon, and teaches Women's and Gender Studies and Africana Studies at Rutgers. Follow her on Twitter at @professorcrunk.

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