“Get back in your cab!” The taxi stand man yelled aggressively and pointed at the man who was supposed to be driving me to Bushwick.
It was my annual NYC trip and I had just arrived at the long cluster of yellow taxicabs outside of LaGuardia. From what I’ve learned in my experience with taxis, particularly in New York, you have to be self-assured when you tell them where you need to go. “Make sure you seem like you’re from here,” someone once told me.
“Brooklyn,” I told the driver as I opened the door. He shook his head “noooo.” I cowered, like a rejected sixth grade roller-skater, who had confidently lined up along the wall to be picked for the couple’s skate, only to be overlooked by all of the cool boys, whose parents could afford the extra two dollars it cost to rent rollerblades instead….
While I walked towards the second cab, feeling the scorn of rejection, I almost missed the ensuing scene, which had stalled the yellow sea of cabs waiting to chauffer patrons to Manhattan [and only Manhattan].
“He does this every fucking time!” The second driver, MY soon to be driver, yelled.
“Stop banging on his window, and get back in your cab!”
He was knocking on the window of the cab directly in front of his, the one that had refused my passage to Brooklyn. That driver just shook his head with his hands in the air, and kept his window locked in the upright position.
As I watched what transpired before me, I tried to chime in, “I can wait—,” but my throat was so dry from being nervous and uncomfortable, anything I said was inaudible. I wanted to wait. I wanted to go back into the airport, wait 20 minutes, and come back out when there would be a less aggressive, more mild-mannered taxi driver. [Does not exist.] This was not the first time I have ruined a taxi driver’s day by announcing I needed a ride to Brooklyn. At both LaGuardia and JFK, it seems Brooklyn is like the Mordor of the New York taxicab scene.
“Get back in your cab! He’s off in 30 minutes so he gets to stay in Manhattan. You’re going to Brooklyn!” But apparently my driver had a different hypothesis as to why he was the one chosen to bear my burden.
I had not fully buckled in yet when I heard, “IT’S BECAUSE HE’S BLACK AND HE’S BLACK!”
We had just departed the airport, and in a weird innate, self-preservation, my ears turned themselves off to the outside world and I could only hear woodland bird chirps, and the sounds of magical twinkling fairies, and as they were transitioning back to reality, I mistakenly thought I had heard, “It’s because he’s black.”
“…… I’m sorry?” I whispered. “I don’t think I heard you correc—“
He interrupted, and frustratingly repeated, “It’s because he’s black.”
“It’s because HE is black and HE is black!” He was yelling at this point.
“Who and who? What?” I humored him. I humored him, regrettably, because I am a coward, and as I saw it at the time, I did not want to get into a racial politics argument with this crazy man that I was stuck in a tiny, confined space with, zipping around NYC. He was in control of my life, and I value that life very much.
“Do you have one of those phones?”
“Oh yeah…” Is he asking me this because, had I not, he would kill me and dump me somewhere for making him drive to Brooklyn? I am making this angry, blatantly racist man drive to Bushwick….. NOT Williamsburg, or even the recently gentrified and newly established East Bushwick. But BUSHWICK. This man hates me. [Or do taxis not come equipped with their own GPS in 2014? ANSWER: They do not.]
As he was going off about how the taxi stand man was giving the first driver preferential treatment based on race solidarity [except maybe his word choice was WAY MORE explicitly racist], I discreetly started sending my friend Holly, who I was planning on visiting, his cab information.
At this point I did not think I would be making it out of this cab, and I needed her to start the search party immediately. (How do I get the license plate number from the inside?)
The City changes people. It toughens you, and gives you thicker skin. Every person I’ve known who has moved to New York City says the first year is the hardest. If you don’t develop thicker skin, well then I guess you better move to Portland.
Every year I would visit my friend, she would get sassier, and sassier.
It wasn’t necessary, of course, but his distasteful approach to normal taxicab banter had shaken me up. [What happened to, “What brings you to New York?” or, “Can you even believe this weather?”] He drove away smiling and seemed unfazed by it all after we arrived at Holly’s apartment, like he hadn’t gone on a 45-minute rant about racial stereotypes.
“What happened?” Holly asked sweetly as I distressfully started removing my baggage. I felt relieved, like a Hobbit who had spent too long outside of the Shire. (And not on any kind of fun adventure with dragons and hot dwarves, but on an endless journey through Mordor to Mt. Doom….)
I explained the whole scenario to a rather unsurprised and unmoved Holly.
“Oh that’s all? Psssssshhhhhh…. Yeah, we tolerate racism here,” she said nonchalantly while picking up things around her apartment.
[THIS COULD NOT BE.]
This was the girl I had bonded with in mid to late college, as we tried to establish ourselves as independent, adopted Korean women, trying to navigate our way through a liberal arts education, with little accompanying racial diversity. We would complain about how racist West Michigan is all of the time. And now SHE tolerates racism? We used to write our friends’ names on a dry erase board and tally their microaggressions like body parts on a losing game of Hangman. (No one ever knew what we were tallying, or why their names were on the dry erase board, but we knew. And it gave us some kind of quiet satisfaction that, yes, we loved these people, but at least we would never say THAT.) [Also, we would never do this now.] [
We I would just bloggg about it later.]
“New Yorkers tolerate racism?” I cautiously asked, with the possibility peaking in my head that, I may have died in that cab with that racist man, and now I am in HELL.
How. Could. This. Be?
In some kind of weird Walden reversal, New York was the place I quietly escaped to every year to gain culture. To be in a city surrounded with people speaking different languages, photography shows with content featuring the closing of the Chinese tenement at 81 Bowery, stuffing my face with Bahn Mi, arepas, and cheap dumplings. There are neighborhoods with restaurants, as far as the eye can see, where these dishes do not have to be served on white square plates with some kind of infused sauce drizzled on the side.
Holly could see how confused I was by her latest revelations. Is this what happens to a girl when gentrification pushes her further and further down the J Train stops?
“Julie, it’s better than everyone in West Michigan, who doesn’t know when they are being racist, because they’re STUPID. AT LEAST everyone knows they’re racist here.”
[My cultural Walden Pond is gone forever….]
Without having to ask, I knew she wasn’t referring to New York’s Stop and Frisk policy, and the Ferguson, MO tragedy had yet to occur. Indirect racism made me feel annoyed, and direct racism made me feel [fucking] scared. But either situation shouldn’t be ignored, or passed aside.
I let this fester for months as I questioned why direct racism [BUT NOT TOO DIRECT] is more tolerable than indirect racism. As I was no longer in NYC and had re-assimilated into the Midwest, enough awkward encounters [mostly with older Caucasian men] had passed, and I had to revisit my conversation with Holly.
“Why do you think it’s easier to tolerate blatantly racist people?” I asked.
“Because they will never say things like, ‘I’m not racist, but…’ Also, even though it’s wrong, at least they are being outwardly honest. And I can confront those people easily. If I call someone a racist in West Michigan they get uncomfortable and list reasons as to why they aren’t…. Which is infuriating.”
She continued, “To me, there are two types of ignorance. There are the ones who have higher education, and will use that higher education as their defense mechanism as to why someone else BUT them is ignorant, i.e., ‘African Americans are ignorant because they have less education.’ That is a racist thing to say. The other type of ignorance is just not experiencing anything. Which I feel both types are heavy in the suburbs….”
“But where do the city’s taxi drivers’ ignorance fall?” I asked, trying to get to the root of the discussion.
“Well, I am glad you asked that.” I imagined us being back in college, her mentoring me in some liberal arts course, ‘Understanding World Problems, You Will Actually Never Be Able to Understand 101.’
“Even though it’s racist remarks, it’s mostly from experience. Their remarks I wouldn’t say are ignorant, but slander, of course.”
“The cab driver knew what he was saying because he has experienced whatever situations to come to whatever racist conclusions he has. Whereas in West Michigan, a girl will say thank you to me in Chinese [xiè xiè, thank you Paul Pimsleur of the Pimsleur Language Learning System] because she assumes every Asian is Chinese. Obviously the latter isn’t as harsh, but it’s JUST PLAIN INCORRECT.”
“And she doesn’t think she’s doing anything wrong because her rich, white parents paid extra money for her to learn Chinese to be ‘more cultured.’”
“And that’s the beauty of tolerated racism,” Holly said, and I knew this was the end of the conversation. [Class dismissed.]
***DISCLAIMER: There are a lot of really awesome, intelligent, non-racist people here in West Michigan.
BUT, another story from Holly.
“Ohhhh also, yesterday on Facebook, my old babysitter posted a picture of her daughter (who is a Korean adoptee) and someone in the comments wrote, ‘She’s adorable; she looks like Lily from Modern Family.’ Naturally I was irritated because a. she does not look like her and b. this white woman has no idea how wrong she is due to the fact that she has only seen ONE Asian American little girl in mainstream media. And apparently ALL young Asian girls look like LILY FROM THE HIT SHOW MODERN FAMILY. Ughhhhh. It took all of my strength not to comment, ‘I bet you think that I look like Lily from Modern Family too.’”
I can attest to Holly’s story. I have only heard of the “hit TV show,” Modern Family, due to people telling ME (TOO) that, “ I bet you looked like Lily from Modern Family when you were a kid; she’s so cute.”…. etc. etc.
SO NO. I didn’t.