Lessons I Learned on a Train from Sintra about Racism

The train from Sintra had been sitting waiting to leave for several minutes and departure was imminent. The largely tourist crowd was anxious to return to Lisbon when many of us were shaken out of our tourism induced fog by an incident involving the courtesy seating.

Now anyone travelling on transit throughout the world knows that there is always game around the courtesy seating. Who among us likes to stand and bang into other passengers and their stuff as a crowded train or bus lurches forward towards its destination? We sit in the seats while hoping that (a) someone obvioulsy in need does not appear or (2) hope that no one questions our sitting there. There are also the occasional passengers who are oblivious to the fact that they are sitting in these seats. And, this is where the story starts.

The three women of colour, who would be nearby passengers to us, in their second year of university probably were no different in looking tired and anxiously looking for somewhere to sit. Although they appeared to be of different racial backgrounds from each other (at least one was from an Indian background), this matters little to the story.

They appeared to be recent friends, perhaps having met up at one of many Lisbon hostels or alternatively at school somewhere. We know they were in college based on their attire and we know they spoke English. The rest is speculation. Nevertheless, two of the women had taken the seats across from us and the third had found a single seat across the aisle with an Asian family (parents and late 20s daughter). The seating arrangement would soon become an issue.

Picture a man walking down the aisle of the train looking for a seat. His cadence and mood suggested he needed a seat but none were to be found. As he approached us he came across four people in the priority seating area. He wasted no time in insisting, as much as the language issues would allow, that he be allowed to sit there. You see he was local, not a tourist, and he needed to sit.

Tension was palatable. The Asian parents and daughter were completely confused. Why was this man standing over them and gesturing to the younger women? The woman of colour sat unsure of herself before rising to give up her seat. As she rose, across from me, her friend reacted swiftly.

“Don’t! It is your seat”

Along with other loudly expressed comments, the friend implored her friend to stand her ground. Faced with a larger man, the young woman relented and moved to stand by the door.

He was not in any way a large man by male standards but he easily stood a foot taller and, of, course had the stature of a man who had lived many years. Not a senior but not a young man. Caught in-between. He was, also, white.

The man sat and much of the tension resolved for most in the immediate vicinity but simmered on the train. The man never looked comfortable throughout the 30 minute journey and the two friends who remained sitting stewed on the issue from that point on. I was never sure whether the man understood the comments they were making (only the aisle physically separated them) and perhaps I was only projecting my own sympathy as I read his body language.

The angrier of the two women had a story to tell and it was a story of colour. In fairness, extraordinary events such as this do tend to spark conversation. But, she told her story loudy as an act of defiance and not so subtle protest.

“He walked all the way down the train and stopped and took her seat. Look at all the people who he passed by before he took her seat. Why her?”

While it was directed at her friend, it had the tone of global resentment that implied that all of us… those not chosen to give up their seat and perhaps all of us who were white… were somehow to blame. In fact, she went on to observe that “no one stands up for a black woman. All these people they just watch.” Her friend agreed and they continued to talk of their shared systemic experience of racism. This guy was just the most recent example. It was an angry and hurt expression of daily life as a woman of colour in Europe.

Perhaps against our better judgement we observed that their friend was sitting in the four seats reserved for priority seating (the sign referred to pregnant woman, those with small children and those with trouble walking (a picture of a person with a cast on their leg). But, this did not seem to change the story. Clearly there must be other seats “on this whole train” and besides “there is nothing wrong with his legs and he is not that old.”

Perhaps it is Canadian deference that would have spurred us to give up a seat when asked. We spent the remaining 20 minutes or so half listening to the anger of racial experience but said nothing. What was there to say that they could not see for themselves?

Although the man did not make an issue of it, I had noticed one thing about the man. He only had one arm. His jacket hid the fact, but it was evident to anyone who was truly observing.

Standing for him would have been a challenge and he had asked someone 20 years his junior to let him have her seat. A seat that was specifically for people who needed it. He did not do it in a deferential and polite way, which might have been better, but his truth was there to be seen. And, one can imagine he feels his own resentment and anger that being unable to find a seat because tourists have them all just fuels and prevents him from asking in a better way even though he shouldn’t have to.

When we lose the ability to see where another person comes from and only see our own truth all of society is at a loss.

The women left the train still discussing the incident. Their truth, one of racism, appeared to be the only story they carried with them as they walked into the night. The man clutched his bag and left carrying a different truth. We will never know if he choose that women’s seat because of the colour of her skin or just because she was young. In any case, he had to have left with a different view of race — that somehow young people of different races feel they are entitled to priority seating. And, what about the young woman who gave up the priority seat? She stood and talked with some other young people near the train door and then joined her friends when we arrived.

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