Last week, a high school student got onto a crowded subway car at rush hour. While there seemed to be no place left for anyone to sit and those standing were crowded together, a space around her quickly cleared. In fact she found herself the sole occupant of a row of three seats. No one sat down near her.
When I last saw this girl, she was neatly attired in a school uniform, she had no noticeable odour and a rather pleasant look on her face. She also is not given to shouting or making threatening noises or gestures.
How is it that she cleared a section of a subway car at rush hour without saying a word? She wears a hijab. She is a young person of colour whose religion is outwardly apparent. What is happening to girls and women like her in public places is nothing short of disgraceful.
No one called her a name or said anything disrespectful. They just moved quietly away from her. How did she feel? While it may have been nice to get the seat, she was deeply hurt and offended. That feeling clearly stayed with her for days.
My young friend attends a school that has, like most public schools in Toronto, a wide diversity of students. They come from many countries, speak many languages and practice many faiths, including no faith at all. They also have many and diverse opinions and ways of thinking.
On this particular day, the students were attending a social justice conference. They were discussing education and activism. So I asked them what they thought about their schoolmate's experience. What would they have done if they they had been there when it happened?
Some thought she should have taken the opportunity to put her bag on the empty seats and enjoy the extra room. Some thought she should have spoken to the people who moved away from her. Some thought it would have been a terrible idea to speak to the people who moved away -- it could be seen as dangerous or provocative. Some thought that other people should have stood up and said something, although they could not decide what should have been said.
One young man simply said he would have gone to sit next to her. Nothing very elaborate, not very audible or noticeable, but a significant act just the same. It reminded me of a story I heard when I was a child.
In the early 1960s when some elementary schools in the United States were desegregated for the first time, a young white child returned home after her first day of school.
"How did it go?" her mother asked, "Did you talk to the new black child in your class?"
"No," the girl answered.
"Why not?" asked the mother, beginning to feel worried and upset.
"We were both too scared to talk," the little girl replied. "We just sat next to each other holding hands."
As Franklin Roosevelt said, nothing is to be feared but fear itself. We can all of us fight that fear with simple acts of kindness. We can all show the people around us that we are not going to put up with stereotyping, negative assumptions and the "othering" of any of us. We are in this together, folks. So pull up a seat and smile at your neighbour. You will both be glad you did.
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