was riding a packed subway car home from work in Manhattan. Beside me was a middle-aged Chinese man standing hunched and seemingly in pain. Seated nearby was a young African-American woman playing on her cell phone and flipping through Facebook photos. He asked her if she’d kindly give up her seat.
At first she ignored him. Then she said she’d get up, but at the next stop, where she was getting off. The train was still far from the next station and she made no movement toward the door. I was baffled at her strange indifference.
Finally, a seated Caucasian man who’d overheard the exchange offered the Asian man his seat. The man readily accepted and as soon as he sat down put his head in his hands in apparent distress. I sighed with relief. The woman, oblivious, continued playing with her phone without looking up.
In my head, I heard myself say, “African-Americans are so…” But my brain cut the thought short. She’s an individual, I reminded myself. I shouldn’t generalize.
New York City is filled with ethnic groups of all kinds. While those of us who live here often celebrate the diversity that make it such a great place to live, prejudice and random racism often looms just below the surface. A cramped subway car and frayed nerves can peel away the city’s civilized multicultural veneer. People start saying what they really think — often in harsh and very specific ethnic terms.
One colleague has complained to me that when the train he takes pulls into the station and the doors open, Jewish men rush in before people can even get off, grabbing the few empty seats as if it they were the last loaf of bread. He specifies Jews. Another singles out Latino men who he says stand at the subway doors blocking entry. Yet another disdains twenty-something white women who use the subway as a bathroom, applying mascara and blush in the midst of a rush hour commute. Everyone, it seems, is offending everyone else.
But things are even more complicated than how they might seem. Last week I sat next to a group of African-American high school girls. They were chattering away about hair and dating. At one point a particularly cute boy was mentioned.
“Is he black or brown?” one of them asked.
“Oh, he’s light brown,” another responded.
“Everybody wants him so don’t even try.”
This is a world I don’t know. These are subtleties within race that add to the already layered urban mix of gender, age, economic status, and cultural norms that all seem to play out in the same New York minute. It’s a complex prism. Seen from the outside, knowing why individuals behave as they do can be a mystery.
I think back now to the first woman and the sick man. Why, for example, he decided to ask her, and why she couldn’t be bothered to respond generously is unknowable.
The spectrum of human behavior is vast and often baffling. It follows no preset pattern. Humans can be tired, annoyed, hungry, preoccupied, and self-absorbed. But they can also be generous, kind, selfless, and brave, sometimes at a moment’s notice.
For some individuals (individuals, not ethnicities) feelings of disinterest or generosity solidify into personality traits. But displaying such a trait doesn’t create a category — unless the category in question is the human race.
That’s where generalization is appropriate. Homo sapiens is the only category, good, bad, or indifferent, to which we all belong. Humans, not Hispanics, Asians, Caucasians, African-Americans, decide what they want, or need, and how to behave. It helps to remember that.