Last summer, I took an 8 hour greyhound bus trip from Oakland to Los Angeles. I was on my way to meet up with my best friend for a special outing (a concert this time), as we did a few times a year. Normally I just hop on the bus, make my way toward an open row near the back, stick in my headphones, and read a book until arriving at Union Station. After a stop in San Jose, the bus filled to capacity and I was forced to share my normally private 2-seat back row. Long-distance, sardine-can travel etiquette usually dictates that if someone has headphones on and their nose in a book that they don't want to make small talk, but my row companion hadn't gotten the memo. As soon as he sat down, he started talking to me (and didn't stop until his stop in Bakersfield). This is an account of that reluctant conversation:
(A few notes, I was wearing my wedding/engagement ring and texting my husband sporadically through this and got a call from my mom checking in on me…)
It started politely; he asked if he could sit next to me and I removed one ear bud and nodded yes. Immediately as he took a seat, he looked at my Berkeley sweater and struck up a conversation. His opener was inferring that I must be smart as well as pretty if I went to Berkeley (it felt like he didn't expect a pretty girl could be smart or something). I told him I'd graduated 2 years ago and went back to my book (I hate being hit on, so my instinct is to ignore and hope they guy takes the hint), to which he responded by regaling me with how he'd only done "ok" in high school compared to me but that he would still make good money since he was going into accounting. I let him continue without responding. Eventually, he asked me what I majored in (environmental economics and policy). Now I probably shouldn't have responded, but seeing as I'd been in similar situations before (trapped on bus with a guy trying to hit on me) and been met with verbal abuse and been followed, I didn't want to ruffle feathers while I was alone and a couple hundred miles from home. In sum, I was annoyed that this random guy was so entitled that he felt I owed him a conversation and scared that he might do something to me or follow me if I didn't humor him.
But I guess being an man who felt entitled to my attention wasn't enough for this guy, once he heard what my major was, he began a semi-rant about how environmental regulation was getting in the way of capitalist growth that somehow lead to him bragging about voting for Romney because he would create jobs and deregulate industries to boost the economy. At this point, I had taken out my headphones (I have a cynical interest in people saying stupid shit straight to my face) and was probably visibly rolling my eyes at most of whatever tripe kept spilling from his mouth. Then when he said he voted Romney, I did a quick double take. This was an obviously Latino college dude speaking like he was a white Yale business student. I could only imagine the cognitive dissonance.
Out of my own twisted sense of humor, and a desire to finally tell this dude off, I started asking my own questions. Turned out he was 3rd generation Chicano from Bakersfield, and his dad owned some kind of business. He told me they'd had to sell one of their houses during the recession like I was supposed to feel sorry for him. When I retorted with a sharp "well at least your family had a second house to sell or a house at all" he seemed to notice that he wasn't exactly talking to a sympathetic ear. I spent the next half hour or so going back and forth refuting every political stance he felt brag-worthy enough to mention. He was insistent that conservative republicans were the answer to all the nations problems, and I basically sat there telling him exactly how wrong he was (basically he hated the idea of socialized medicine, something that saved my mom's life when she was a teen, and supported things like massive deportations and eliminating Medicaid and cutting Social Security).
About 30 minutes before the Bakersfield station, he said he'd still like to get to know me and asked for my number (I guess being a liberal socialist wasn't enough of a turn off). I told him I was married and honestly wouldn't have been interested had I been single. I put my headphones back in and tried to read a few more chapters of my book and he let me be. As he got ready to get off the bus in Bakersfield, he turned to me and apologized for being an "asshole" (his word, not mine) and thanked me for taking the time to educate him.
I'm not entirely sure if I learned anything from this experience, but it stuck with me. I don't know if this guy decided to do some research and soul searching about his political opinions after he got off that bus or if he just went back to being who he was, but the recurrence of topics like male entitlement and POC who are "self-hating" seems to keep this moment of my life relevant. I didn't want to talk to this guy. He had me cornered in the back of a bus for 4 hours (out of an 8 hour total trip), and I was scared he could do something to me. I was scared to ignore him, yet I was scared to provoke him by calling him on his shit. So I humored him, and by doing so sat through him saying all sorts of offensive things about people like me, my friends, and my family (liberals, environmentalists, illegal immigrants, the poor, the working class, women, POC, PWD).
I feel lucky that I was able to say something back, that I was able to make him feel badly enough about his behavior that he apologized, and that he might've benefitted by hearing some of what I had to say. But, outside of 4 hours of discomfort and annoyance, I don't think I benefitted from the experience. I felt, maybe still feel, annoyed and even a bit angered that the possible enlightenment of a privilege person involved me (a WOC) being forced into the situation, being made to feel unsafe, and being subjected to prejudice.
I'm writing this as a way to work though the frustration of that day and the frustration I feel when women, POC, and PWD have to face discrimination and microaggressions on a daily basis while people with privilege get angered when they are told to check that privilege. When a minority tells someone to check their privilege or tries to explain why we get so angry when things like catcalling, ableism, and other microaggressions happen, we are placing ourselves in a risky position. We are losing the ability to just be a person and risking unpredictable (possibly violent) reactions from the people we're speaking to. So maybe I'm lucky that all I had to endure was a few hours of irritation, but that I hope that doesn't mean I shouldn't write about it.
ETA: This is my first Salad Bowl post. Tell me how I did :)