By Tonima Rahman (Originally published on December 29, 2016.)
I have been riding the subway since I started high school. After all these years of taking it almost every day, I know most of the train lines inside out.
I volunteered at a hospital the summer between my junior and senior years of high school. One evening, on my way home, the N and Q trains were running with delays. I stood at Queensboro Plaza for 20 minutes, praying the train would arrive soon. A group of four young, white women in their mid 20’s stood next to me on the crowded platform.
They seemed confused and worried. I could only faintly hear that they were having a conversation, but could not make out what they were saying.
Everyone around me was a person of color — from South Asia, South America, East Asia, the Caribbean Islands, and the list goes on. The only white people on that platform were the group of women and a young couple.
Another 20 minutes had passed. The group of women seemed very confused at this point. They obviously needed help with directions as they turned their subway map in all directions. Finally, they gave up on the map.
They asked the only other white people in sight for help — the couple. The question was clear and concise. I could hear the words from a mile away; no pauses.
“Do you know how to get to Bryant Park?”
The couple, also confused, wasn’t from here, so they were of no help. The group of young, white women then hesitantly turned to me and one woman began asking the same question.
“Do… you… know… how… to… get… to… Bryant.. Park?” This time she paused between each word, enunciating every syllable. She made sure I could read her lips as she moved them in the most exaggerated way possible to make sure I understood it all.
My body became hotter than it already was after standing on a crowded platform in the summer. I could feel my cheeks turn red. I didn’t know what I was hearing. How could they possibly talk to me as if they were speaking to an animal that doesn’t know anything? My skin wasn’t white like theirs, and I don’t look “American,” so they assumed I don’t know English.
I held in my anger, sadness, and utter disgust as I politely answered.
“Take the 7 train downtown to 5th avenue.”
“Oh… uh… Thanks.”
Their faces — when I was able to completely comprehend as well as answer their question in fluent English — were priceless. They seemed embarrassed, but not enough to apologize. Even as they slowly walked away in shame, I could still feel the burn of my rage.