I really prefer to take public transportation when given the opportunity. I spend too much of my life in the private sphere, at home or in my car, so when possible I like to go enjoy public life. But today, while taking the BART to Berkeley, I found myself in one of those morally ambiguous positions only found in mixed social conditions.
When I boarded the train there were two women with two strollers and two small children (a sleeping infant and a bouncy boy that seemed not yet a toddler but close). I didn’t really think much of it. I just took my seat a few rows up and proceeded to stare out the window.
A couple of stops later a comfortably wealthy woman with a little girl (maybe 7-10 years old) boarded and they sat in front of me. As they were taking their seats the girl snapped “No! I get the window!” and pushed passed the older woman to take her preferred seat. I thought, geez what a brat. She should learn some respect. I looked disapprovingly at their fancy clothes and the woman’s apparent plastic surgery. The girl was dressed in a leopard print dress and leopard print shoes– obviously training to be a diva. I see their type often, driving their luxury SUVs and shopping at Neiman Marcus. I assumed they were just taking the BART as fun adventure, part of an afternoon of bonding and probably shopping.
Then, suddenly we hear one of the women with the strollers behind us yell:
“If you don’t quit, I am going to beat your ass!”
She didn’t just raise her voice and speak sternly– she yelled, in a scary voice, at her very young child in a very public place. The woman in front of me shot me a knowing glance, like that woman is a terrible mother, right? Geez some people. I smiled and went back to staring out the window. Occasionally, glancing behind me to make sure that things weren’t escalating between the woman and her child. Fortunately, things (the bouncy boy) seemed to have calmed down.
The thing is, I can totally see where the other woman was coming from–though I should say I very much disapprove of her actions. While I don’t have any children, I know from all my parent friends that it can be incredibly frustrating sometimes. And, I don’t want to presume too much about these women, but it did seem that they lacked a lot of the resources that the wealthy woman seemed to have. Their strollers weren’t like the ones I typically see in the wealthy parts of town. Their clothes looked low-end. It is easy for me to imagine that they don’t have easy access to affordable child care and so end up shlepping their children around. Maybe they don’t have cars so they are reliant on public transportation. For me, and probably the woman sitting in front of me, it is an alternative to dealing with traffic and a bit of an adventure–not a necessity. If I was in a hurry, I could just drive. When I travel with friends and their small children, we always drive. Because children are frustrating enough without the added stress of considering the people around you and train delays and scary tunnels that can disrupt naps and scare little ones.
I disembarked shortly after the outburst, but I kept thinking about the experience. Should someone have said something? What can you say? Should you try to be supportive but offer alternative ways to discipline your child? Why was I so quick to sympathize and justify one woman’s treatment of child yet willing to judge the other? Does it matter that the woman who threatened her child was an African American? How did that shape my (and others’) perception of the situation?
I don’t have an answer to any of these questions. But I did realize, that when it comes to the marginalized (as identified by me) I am quick to develop structural explanations for their behavior. Whereas for the wealthy (or those that I perceive as wealthy) I blame the individual. This doesn’t seem ok but at the same time any alternative doesn’t seem right either.
Any suggestions from the audience? Would you have done anything different? How would react?