Mid-morning on a Wednesday. I am riding the 21 down Lake Street, and the bus is only about 1/3 full—a rarity. I’m sitting in the front seats, so I can see down the length of the bus. A Muslim woman dressed in a black burqa that barely reveals her eyes and nothing else is seated in the front-facing seats on the aisle, two rows away from me. Next to her is an empty window seat.
An African-American guy, mid-thirties, boards the bus and, for whatever reason, wants to sit in the seat next to the Muslim woman. This will require her to move, either to scoot toward the window so he can sit on the aisle, or to shift her body to let him pass so that he can sit next to the window. Neither of these things happen.
The African-American guy becomes offended by what he seems to perceive as rudeness. He takes a seat right behind the Muslim woman and begins to complain at a good volume to assure that his lament is shared with his fellow riders.
“You don’t want to sit next to somebody, don’t ride the bus. People on the bus have the right to sit anywhere they want. Won’t even move over to make room for somebody else.”
He goes on for a bit, sometimes talking into the Muslim woman’s ear. Other African-American passengers take up his cause.
“Yeah, that’s just crazy,” one woman says. “It happens to me all the time.”
“You don’t want to sit next to other people,” a man chimes in, “get a damn car.”
Keep in mind that there are plenty of empty seats on the bus. Many of them do not require climbing over another passenger or asking them to let you pass. Then things escalate. The original man almost yells at the woman in the burqa.
“You dress like a terrorist on this bus, you see what you get. People in my neighborhood dress that way, we take care of business.” Other passengers echo these comments. The Muslim woman, staring intently toward the front of the bus, doesn’t respond.
The question is, what should I do?
My university-provided, intercultural awareness training, as well as decades of experience, have taught me that a white dude stepping in and telling the black dude to back off won't go well. Who do I think I am to tell him what to do? And there isn’t just one African-American passenger persecuting this woman, but three.
That same training, and my own natural inclination, tells me to stand up when someone is being bullied. That’s what I really want to do, but my confidence is low. Can I intervene without escalating the scene even further? Plus, I have to get off at the next stop or I’ll miss my appointment. I try to make eye contact with the Muslim woman, to offer a supportive glance, but she continues to stare straight ahead.
My stop. The best I can think to do is tell the driver to watch out for the Muslim woman, that other passengers are ganging up on her.
I step off the bus, feeling worried and ashamed.