THE METRO IS crowded today, and the 20-something, well-dressed white man has to stand, one hand holding the bar and the other his smartphone. It’s the end of the day. All the commuters—but one—are turned toward home. The young man’s face, like most of the others, is dulled with exhaustion. No one makes eye contact.
In a seat near the door, one woman sits facing everyone, looking backward. She studies the young man’s face intently, uncomfortably. He shifts. She rearranges the bags at her feet. Her reflection in the window shows an ashy neck above her oversized T-shirt collar. The train hums and clicks through a tunnel. As if in preparation, she takes another sip from the beat-up plastic cup she’s holding.
At last, she raises her voice and asks: “Why are white people so mean?” Boom! The electricity of America’s third rail crackles through the train. Faces fold in like origami or turn blank like a screensaver.
But this was no rhetorical question. When no one answers, she asks again, this time aiming her question at the young man with his phone. A flush creeps up his neck. “You look like you could be a sheriff,” she says to him. “Good and mean. I can see it in your eyes. You got mean eyes.” When he realizes her attention is stuck on him, he replies, “I hope I’m not mean. I try to be good.”
An older man leans in to shhhsh her. “Sister, don’t talk like that here,” as if this was a topic only for the back porches in certain neighborhoods. Everyone was watching—and not watching—America’s racial history play out wildly and uncontrolled, like there was a snake loose on the train.