A few weeks ago, I took the MegaBus early on a Saturday morning from DC’s Union Station to New York City for a reading I was giving from my new poetry collection, Strange Children. I got there about 45 minutes early because this was my first time on MegaBus and I wanted to be sure I was in the right place and on time. I was fourth in line and as time passed, more and more people lined up behind me.
A woman came up and asked me if this was the line for the bus to New York and I said yes. A few minutes later, a couple came up and asked me the same question. Across the 45 minutes before we all loaded on, no fewer than six or seven people asked me if they were in the right place.
I’m a friendly looking guy. I’m usually smiling. I have glasses. I’m slightly overweight. I was probably reading a book. In other words, I’m unthreatening, easy to talk to. This happens to me a lot. But I noticed something else as people kept coming up to ask if they were in the right place. Not only were people asking me for confirmation, they were not asking the people around me.
I’m white and somewhere around 70% of the people on the MegaBus were black. The folks asking “Is this the bus to New York?” were white, Asian, Latinx, black—a full spectrum of questioners—but only I was perceived to have the answer. This is despite the fact that this was my first time on MegaBus. This is despite the fact that there was a Megabus information station just ten feet away, helmed by a black employee decked out in the Megabus blue and gold. This is despite the fact that a black woman standing right next to me had a huge folder of travel information that she kept leafing through. If you wanted to know anything about how to get from DC to NY on Megabus, this lady would have had the info in her folder, I’m sure of it.
In that moment, I could feel my whiteness. As Toni Morrison said, whiteness is the water that we swim in. We can’t always see it, because it’s always there, all around us. As people kept asking me to reassure them—and not asking the people around me—my whiteness became obvious to me, an unearned authority.
I’ve been thinking about this a lot in the weeks that followed. Weeks in which two black men were arrested in a Philadelphia Starbucks while waiting on a friend and a young black woman had campus police called on her for napping in her own dorm, and just the other day when a black real estate investor was visiting his properties, among many other incidents. I’ve been thinking about a friend who is black who has told many stories of not being talked to, of being avoided, not sat next to, because of the color of his skin. I’ve been thinking about Claudia Rankine’s Citizen and the lines “Because white men / can’t police their imagination / black men are dying.”
In her book So You Want to Talk About Race, Ijeoma Oluo makes the point that not everything is about race, but race is a part of everything. Were the people asking me if this was the right line because I was white? Were they not asking any of the well-informed black people around me because they were black? As with so many things about race, it’s hard to say for certain. Intent is nearly impossible to prove, but racial bias run deep in all of us. A preference for whiteness and a fear of blackness are the twin currents of the water in which we swim. It’s hard to say which is pulling anyone any which way at any one time or how hard they’re trying to swim against it, but certainly race was a part of it, if not the thing itself.
If you are looking for an illustration of white privilege, perhaps this is a helpful one: The downside of racial bias for me as a white man is being mildly annoyed to answer questions from strangers again and again while trying to read my book and wait for the bus. The downside of racial bias for black people is often prejudice, isolation, harassment, imprisonment, or death.
When we wade into the ocean, we don’t always feel the tide pulling us out. It takes time and a snap of attention to realize that our feet have dug in without our notice, that we’ve moved a bit further out than we intended. As white people, we need to pay more attention to the pull of racial bias and the way it moves us toward unintended thinking. We need to feel our whiteness more often and remind ourselves of the danger of the water of biases all around us. We need to be conscious of how our privilege works in society and how it works against others. When we feel the pull towards white people and away from black people, we need to take a moment and correct for the undertow.
Ask yourself why you talked to that one parent at the school info session but not the other. Ask why you asked that guy for directions but not someone else. Ask why you think that one actor is handsome but another “isn’t your type.” Ask yourself why you think that one kid at school is trouble but the other one is “just being a little boy.” Ask why you’ve “just got a feeling” about this job candidate named Linsday but not this other candidate named Imani. Ask why you got a mortgage from the first bank you applied to but someone else had to shop around. Ask why you walked right in while that other guy is getting stopped at the door. Ask why things just seem to work out for you while others struggle. Ask why you feel afraid and ask if fear is based in reality. Ask why you think someone like me will have the answer but someone different will not.
Fighting racial bias is a lifelong interrogation of ourselves, our motivations, and the forces that shape our society. Taking the Implicit Bias test developed by Harvard is a good place to start questioning how your unconscious beliefs play out. It’s important to keep asking ourselves questions about our relationship to race, to try to be more aware of the people around us, who we talk to and who we don’t. Ask others about their experiences. Listen. Keep asking questions.
But also, next time, if you need to ask where to catch the bus? There’s an info desk right over there with knowledgeable staff who know exactly where you need to go. I want to finish this book before we pass through Philadelphia.
Dan Brady is the author of the poetry collectionStrange Children, forthcoming from Publishing Genius in 2018, and two chapbooks, Cabin Fever / Fossil Record (Flying Guillotine Press) and Leroy Sequences (Horse Less Press). He is the poetry editor of Barrelhouse and lives in Arlington, Virginia with his wife and two kids. Learn more at danbrady.org.