“Columbus” Day in Washington, DC

As it happens on some days, I had an eye-opening exchange in my Uber Pool yesterday afternoon. It’s a windy Sunday in Washington, DC. I’m picked up in Columbia Heights, a gentrified but still gritty part of town. There are two young women in the back, so I sit up front. Our driver is a tall black man with long dreadlocks.

It starts out as any Uber ride, with the girls making small talk about how there’s such a lovely view of the skyline. I comment that it’s too bad they’re being dropped off first, as my usual ride to work (where I’m headed, yes, on a Sunday) features a stunning view of the newly renovated Capitol building. “I’ll probably go in tomorrow, too,” I add. “Isn’t it Columbus Day?” asks one of the girls. “God, I can’t even believe people still celebrate that!” “Yeah,” I say, “we should all just start calling it Indigenous Peoples Day, and the government will have to change the name eventually.” The girls enthusiastically agree.

Our driver chimes in, pointing out that such routine injustices are ubiquitous, from the names of our streets and parks to the history books in our schools. What about the memorial to Thomas Jefferson, a man who was deeply committed to slavery and hostile to the welfare of blacks? The girl in the back quickly recants, pointing out it’s harder to change a memorial than it is to change the name of a day. “I picked Thomas Jefferson, but I could have used a million other names, and my point would be the same.” He begins rattling off examples of racists who are widely revered in American society. He is eloquent and polite, but his voice is getting louder. The girl offers some meek retorts, and the tension in the car becomes palpable. I bring up the Woodrow Wilson School, where students were demanding to change the university’s name. “Small steps,” quips one of the girls, in a voice that sounds like it’s meant to be perky and reassuring. I feel my eyeballs bulge in disbelief.

We soon pull over, the girls exit the vehicle, and the driver and I start to debrief. The girl had voiced her outrage over Columbus Day, but unknowingly exposed her own racism and resistance to really confronting historical truths that made her uncomfortable. “What about Bill Cosby?” the driver asks. I immediately tense up, but keep listening. I am appalled when I sometimes see black men online who appear to defend the serial rapist, so I’m curious about what he has to say. “The removal of Cosby’s mural from Ben’s Chili Bowl (a historic local eatery) was swift, even though he technically has yet to be found guilty. But when it comes to white men that we know for a FACT have perpetrated tremendous crimes, we make excuses and are told that we need to talk “small steps.’” I didn’t want to admit it, but he had a point.

We also discussed what the reaction would be if her attitude was applied to the feminist movement. What if women were told that we should be asking men for concessions with politeness and meekness, that we shouldn’t make a big deal over “minor” offenses, and that our struggle for equality should be approached with “small steps”? I’m pretty sure the same girl would find that attitude appalling and unacceptable. And it’s shocking how the same feminists who insist that their point of view is more important than a man’s when it comes to sexism (i.e. mansplaining) don’t hesitate to talk over black people when it comes to issues of race.

Anyway, I don’t have any grand sweeping things to say about intersectionality or double standards or anything like that. Just wanted to share the story. I felt like the whole episode should have been filmed for one of those instructional videos about uncovering your own hidden racism or something. Oh and happy Indigenous Peoples Day, y’all.