Public transport: A hotbed for racism

Why has public transport become an unrelenting breeding ground for racism?

Image: Getty/ NurPhoto

You’re sitting on a train. The humming of the vehicle is causing you to feel a little drowsy, the people and buildings outside are passing in a blur. It should be comforting, sinking into your chair while barrelling towards your destination. But the seat beneath you is like sandpaper against your thighs, the window is painted with hateful words, and in the distance, is the sinister sound of racism pervading the carriage.

We’ve all experienced it. If you’re a regular commuter you’re bound to have witnessed at least one act of racism on public transport. In my first year of university I was headed home on the 412 when a man began hurling obscenities at people of Asian ethnicity for having the audacity to step foot on the bus.

I’ve watched at least a dozen videos online that have made me feel like I’m watching back  my own experience. Moments of hatred shared on social media. We watch and we think ‘how terrible,’ and then, we move on with our lives, comforted by the thought that if we had been there that day, we would have stopped it.

But standing on the bus, gripping the metal pole, trying to maintain balance as we zipped through the city streets, I did not. I watched the man spew revulsion and disgust at ordinary people for no reason at all. People who were the same as me; my classmates, trying to get home. And I said nothing.

Instead I felt transported to another time. I was 14 years old again, travelling home on the bus after a hot, sweaty day at school, the older boys in front of me snickering and making pointed glances my way. When the bus finally skittered to a halt and I shuffled towards the gliding doors, I faintly heard the word ‘gorilla’ come from their direction. It hung over me like a shadow.

This particular memory rendered me utterly frozen. I stood there listening to this man spread vulgarity and chaos on the bus, no longer an intelligent, confident woman but a frightened schoolgirl. I had no voice, and so the cycle was perpetuated. Those people on the bus left feeling as powerless and alone as I had so many years ago when nobody bothered to speak up for me.

Why has public transport become an unrelenting breeding ground for racism? Why, when we are surrounded by so many people, do we feel the most afraid? Maybe it’s because train carriages and buses are enclosed spaces that leave us feeling trapped. We’re surrounded by hideous beige-coloured walls, sticky floors, and an inescapable musk, with nothing but our own reflection staring back at us. We’re forced to see our own faults and imperfections and instead of confronting it, we deflect that feeling of hatred onto someone else. Race is an easy target. Without ordinary pleasantries to distract us, do we become nothing more than selfish, ignorant discriminators? In these unsettling times, when people have resorted to hoarding toilet paper, and brawling over the last can of tomato soup, it’s scary to imagine that humans are incapable of common decency under extraneous circumstances.

I can’t give you a definite answer as to why people behave this way. All I can say is that I wish somebody had stood up for the 14-year-old girl struggling to comprehend why the word ‘gorilla’ was being thrown at her all those years ago. All it would have taken was one person. And then perhaps, I might have been able to return the favour for those students on the bus who most likely left feeling as lost and alone as I once did.

The virus sweeping our nation has only worsened this pre-existing issue. New incidents of racism on public transport are emerging every day. These new outbursts stem from the naive misconception that those of Chinese descent are carrying COVID-19 microbes everywhere they go and so, we are left with racist upsurges and people moving seats on the bus to get away from Asian Australians out of irrational fear. Political and economical instability fosters xenophobia. Trump continues to refer to COVID-19 as “the Chinese virus.”

European right-wing political parties have been using the virus as a ploy to halt immigration. Other news sources have reported a collective feeling of villanisation. A Taiwanese woman riding the train in France recounted her experience of racism; “I sat down with my headphones and suddenly heard the word ‘Chinese!’ and a mother and child got off to change carriages.” While Eunice, a woman living in NYC spoke to The Atlantic about people overly distancing themselves from her on public transit. Similar stories have been surfacing all over the world.These global challenges should be uniting us against the faceless foe that is a deadly virus, but even as national leaders from around the world urge us to be kind and considerate, we are still divided. 

Maybe a little time spent at home in self-isolation will lead to some self-reflection, so that when this is all over and we’re next faced with a beautiful array of multicultural Australians crammed into a moving metal box, we won’t be afraid, we’ll embrace it. But at the very least, my hope is that we can all ride the bus feeling a little safer than before.

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