Thursday, April 18, 2013

In the Wake of Tragedy

Chicago actor Usman Ally shared the story below on his Facebook page, and I thought it was important to share it with you. In light of the tragedy at the Boston Marathon, he was harassed on the El for appearing different, much like this marathon attendee. It is distressing to hear of the discrimination that follows in the wake of tragedies. Terrorism has no nation or religion. As JK Rowling wrote, the power of "spreading discord and enmity is very great. We can fight it only by showing an equally strong bond of friendship and trust." There is a lot of wisdom in that. 
When I got on the Brown line today, I had no idea that anything like this would happen. I was headed to my rehearsals for "Oklahoma!" at the Lyric Opera and had in my lap some sheet music, in my ears some headphones and on my head a Yankees baseball cap tipped to the side as I always do. 
As I arrived at the Chicago stop on the El, a woman came on board, and sat down just across from me, a little ahead and facing perpendicular to me so that she was able to look me directly in the face. After a few seconds I could feel her eyes fixed on me, so I looked up and caught her gaze. She smiled, but an odd smile that was neither friendly nor an awkward semi apology one might make when realizing that they have been caught staring. I looked away, felt her again, and looked up. She smiled again. Later it would become clear to me that this was a smile of a person who was saying rather knowingly "Yes, you're right, I'm looking directly at you. I am watching you. We are all watching you."

When we arrived at the next stop, a man boarded the train and stood next to her. She looked up at him, stood up quickly and said something all the while gesticulating at me. I pulled one earpiece out and heard her say "I think you need to keep an eye on him." The man responded in a muffle "I think he's fine" to which she said "It just happened yesterday!". This next statement was loud and with intent. The man had a sheepish response to this. Other passengers became aware of the situation and just stared at me. She looked around, looked at me and smiled as if to say "gotcha."

Her actions and her words served to dehumanize me in that moment. They made me feel isolated and ostracized and it was the lack of action from my fellow passengers that compounded my feeling of helplessness.

What really goes through my mind in those moments? I do not know if I had any clear thoughts in my head, but I recall that my heart beat increased in pace very fast, I know that I looked around and thought "what if these people all turn on me", "what if the train conductor pulls me off or calls the police." What if, what if what if.

When I reached my stop, she looked at me and said with what seemed like glee and satisfaction "BYE. BYE!" As I walked away from the train, I saw her bolt up from her seat and start addressing the people in the car while pointing at me. Seeing that was... very hard. 
All I can ask of all of us as a society is to act when we see something wrong. If you know deep in your heart that something wrong is happening in front of your eyes, I urge you to say something, do something. I have found that silence is often the most effective tool in furthering prejudice. And the silence I experienced on he train ride...the silence and the uncomfortable stares were deafening to me.

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