De donde eres?
Having to take the T at least twice a day has forced me to adjust to public transportation etiquette, or lack thereof, during rush hour: the need for most everyone to push and shove to get onto the T before it has even arrived, learning to balance oneself on a moving subway without anything to hold on to, dealing with the unwanted creepy gaze of the man across from me, and the habit of strangers striking up conversation.
And usually those kinds of conversations are pretty harmless – a comment about how crowded it is, something about the unpleasant smell that comes from having so many people crammed into a small space, or will this connect to the red line? But the T conversation that continues to stay with me was one I overheard, and it wasn’t so harmless.
Picture a male, about 20-25 years in age, standing next to another male around the same age. The first male turns to the second and in what could have been considered a friendly manner, asks: “?de donde eres?” The first male, who is Caucasian, has made the assumption that the man next to him must speak Spanishand isn’t originally from the US because of his skin color. His assumption is entirely wrong, as the man responds in perfect Standard English with: “excuse me? I don’t speak Spanish, I’m Arabic” and turns his back to him.
This simple exchange of words, 11 to be exact, holds a significant amount of meaning. Whether or not he is conscious of the implications his words have, the Caucasian male was following in the footsteps of every storeowner who has ever watched a customer more closely than others for fear of theft and every person who has assumed someone is an employee even if he isn’t wearing a uniform – just because of skin color.
I then thought of my job. For many applications (food stamps, housing, cash assistance, etc.), the person must give his or her ethnicity and race. As this is self-reported, the creators of these forms might think that those two questions are easy to answer. But refugees and asylees often times come from countries with different definitions of race, or none at all. My conversations with IIB’s clients regarding race can get confusing and I am sometimes left checking off the box with what others would classify the client as being.
And through all of this I realize, unlike the Caucasian male on the T that day, I understand the implications of what he said and the issues that come with placing people in categorical boxes, thanks to every sociology class I have ever taken at Connecticut College…. Bringing my educational experiences to Boston without knowing it…? Maybe I am ready for the real world.
Now if only my newfound T skills could translate back to CC. Perhaps I could start a new surfing club on campus with my awesome ability to balance myself in a moving subway…? I could ask that guy who is always balancing an open book, a cup of coffee, and talking on his cellphone to be the coach… but I can’t bring myself to be one of those strangers who strikes up random conversations.