The only white guy on the bus

With nearly zero experience of the east, a few years back I went to D.C. Deb had a training event in Silver Spring, MD, which gave me free housing. Now, I have zero basic interest in the nation’s capital for its own sake. Like many residents of Washington, I am habituated (if not accustomed) to people asking “oh, you mean the state?” It’s difficult. If I say what I’m thinking, it sounds very churlish. Sometimes it comes out anyway: “Of course, the state. Is there another place called Washington that is relevant?” I’m not good at holding back, unfortunately.

Of course, when the Smithsonian card is played, I fold. Is there anyone with a passion for history who would not brave our nation’s capital if it meant a chance to spend almost unlimited time browsing the Smithsonian museums? Besides meeting up with a longtime online acquaintance who lives in the area, the Smithsonian was the reason for tagging along. I didn’t care about anything else. My world resolved into the need to get to the Smithsonian in the morning, then back to the lodgings at night.

Living in Seattle for sixteen years, bus travel is old hat for me. Not so light rail, which Seattle didn’t build until I was safely out of town. My day therefore meant taking a bus from Silver Spring to Fort Totten, where I would board DC Metro for the National Mall. I could then choose my museum, and wander freely and joyfully, lingering until closing if I desired. It was, of course, complete museum overload–and in a good way. I’m not sure the Smithsonian museum complex has an equal in the world. Whatever percentage of my tax dollars keep the Smithsonian going, I will cheerfully pay.

Thus, I didn’t expect that commuting to the National Mall would be an educational experience. Oh, sure, I knew I’d be a minority. I’m not ignorant of demographics. Didn’t bother me, and I even kind of felt I might learn something.

It was about a forty-minute milk run to/from Fort Totten. In nearly every situation, I was the only white/Anglo on the bus. Everyone else was black or Hispanic (perhaps both). Many times in Seattle, there had been only one black person on the entire bus. Now I was getting some exposure to that feeling, however brief, and it was an interesting sensation. No one was friendly or talkative, but that’s big city bus travel, and is the same in Seattle. People are in their bubbles. No one was hostile, though; no glares saying “you’re in the wrong place.” I’d describe it as similar to a Seattle bus, except perhaps a little more polite overall. Seattle bus travelers can be quite indifferent to basic manners.

But as the bus filled up, the last vacant seat was always the one next to me. Sometimes it stayed vacant even when the bus had standing room only.

I don’t think it was conscious. But I saw that in reverse plenty of times in Seattle, and now I had a sense of how it felt. I wasn’t offended, nor terribly surprised. I guess I could have been offended, but it wouldn’t have done me any good. No action available to me was going to change habits overnight, or in a week. Nothing for it but to mind my own business, ride the bus to my stop, and that was that. It’s not as if anyone were singling me out on purpose; I just stood out, with my pale skin, crew cut and heavy beard. They weren’t talking to me, but they weren’t talking to each other either.

The only real epiphany from it, I suppose, would be this: I think I understand why minorities are sometimes bemused and philosophical about implied racism, rather than angry. The anger will kill you without changing the reality. One gains more from just observing, accepting that it’s not going to change today, and getting on with whatever life details face one that day. It’s not like anyone acted in a way to force me to take notice of the situation; they just decided not to sit next to me. I have no basic call or right to influence where someone chooses to sit on a bus. Or stand. The only way one can lose in that situation is to call more attention to oneself, which would probably confirm to everyone else on the bus–and one is heavily outnumbered–that it was smart of them not to sit next to one. That’s going backward.

It does make me wonder how different the world would be if we all made a better effort to bridge the gap. On all sides.

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