Thursday, March 19, 2009

Look Twice

A few months ago, I got into a fistfight on the subway.

I was coming home from work and it was packed. There was this gawky twelve year old kid standing nearby. I’d noticed him earlier in the ride clowning around with a friend: Skinny kid, all fingers and toes, awash in the dorkiness of an actual pre-teen who does not have his own show on the Disney channel. I was tired and spacing out when the door slid open and people shifted to get off. The kid made a move for the door but I had a few stops left so I twisted out of the way to let him exit but instead of moving forward he just stood there, blinking and stammering. Just as I was asking him, “are you getting off?” someone behind me gave me a hard shove out of the way. I fell forward, the guy walked around me, and out the door…but not before I gave him a hard shove back.

Then he whirled around and sucker punched me in the face.

In retrospect, the dorky kid was probably paralyzed because he could see past me to the impatient guy who, it turns out was big. Very big. But I didn’t really have time to process any of that in the moment because when he punched me I saw red and…do you remember how Garfield the cartoon cat used to sail through the air to throw himself on to a cartoon lasagna? I did that. “Hello,” said my lizard brain, “I will be taking it from here.” Impatient guy was surprised. The people around us, who were streaming off of the subway, were surprised. Hell, I surprised myself. We stumbled out on to the subway platform as New York commuters, disinterested but ready to move away in case one of us pulled out a weapon, watched blankly.

This is the part of the story where everyone wants to know if the guy was black. Yeah, he was. No, I did not yell something racial at him. Or struggle with myself because I really wanted to yell something racial at him. Or think something racial and then feel guilty about it later. This is not that kind of story. Once I got a look at him, the first thing I registered was “Fuck. He is very big.” (I am not small by any stretch, but he was bigger than me. And he was an unhappy giant compared to the poor, nervous dork back on the train.) I hadn’t been in a fistfight since I was a kid but I used to box at my old gym so I wasn’t totally at a loss. Now that I saw them coming he couldn’t land a punch but since his reach was longer than mine, I couldn’t really get close enough to do much damage either. Basically, we were two guys in winter coats and messenger bags cursing and struggling, it wasn’t exactly Ali/ Frazier. But then his right hand shot out, closed around my throat and he began to squeeze.

I stared down the length of his arm and looked him dead in the eye.

About eight years earlier, in the weeks after 9/11, I was on the subway when a trashy white guy was yukking it up with one of his buddies on his cell phone as the train went above ground. He was doing that thing where he thinks his conversation is so amusing that he was speaking very loudly so that everyone else can enjoy it too. And the thing he was talking about so loudly was killing Arabs. I was standing a foot away from him and he had no idea that he was talking about killing me. Unlike the guy from my then-office who had to quickly explain he was Cuban to group of punks looking to beat an Arab on his way home from work a few days before, I am fair skinned, green eyed: invisible. Listening to him laugh about murdering me, I wasn’t sure what was going to happen. I had no confidence that anyone would lift a finger if half the people on this train decided to beat me to death. I was sick with anger and fear, shaking from adrenaline pumping into my body. I stared at him until he noticed me. His eyebrows shot up. He looked away and looked back. His face was beery and pink. My face was blank. “You want something?” he said. I said nothing. I just waited. “You got a problem?” I shook my head. I wanted him to see me and know who I am. I thought to myself, “Look at me, you son of a bitch. Look at me and see me.” I thought, My people invented higher mathematics. The concept of time. We invented the concept of Zero. The color purple. The letters in the alphabet that make up the words you are using to talk about exterminating us. My father ran away to fight the Nazis in World War ll and was sent home because he was just a skinny kid. He fought in Korea as a young man and when he died decades later, he was buried with an American flag in his casket.

And I. Am. Standing. Right. Here.

I could feel all of the things about me that made his eyes just slide over me in the first place—my skin, my eyes, my perfectly assimilated western bearing—fall away and for the first time he could see that I am an Arab.

He reddened and said under his breath, “Do you want to hurt me?” I shook my head. Watery eyed, he began to bluster at me about how his cousin is a fireman. “Are you a fireman?” I asked evenly. He looked down. “No, uh, I tried to take the test and uh…”

I started to laugh. It was cruel but I couldn’t help it.

“You don’t know what it means to be a hero!” he hissed. “Neither do you” I said, my eyes on his.

That is the look I feel myself giving the guy who has his hand on my throat. All the anger and frustration of the intervening years—Guantánamo, Abu Ghraib, Lebanon, Palestine, legalized torture, “random” searches, profiling, casual hatred—comes pouring out of my eyes and into his. I want him to see me too. “I am standing right here!” I think at him. His eyes get big and I can tell he is thinking, “Oh shit, this guy is crazy.” And its true, I am crazy. The world is making me crazy.

Then something happens I wasn’t counting on. His hand goes soft around my throat but just before he lets go, his eyes cut to the side. And I know in that second he is wondering if there are any cops on the platform. Suddenly he sees himself, a very big black man strangling a—for all intents and purposes—white man in broad daylight on a busy subway platform. There isn’t really any way this can go well for him. He knows this but his anger made him forget. He jerks his hand away and begins to step back. But I am not making it easy for him. I am ready to go and I tell him so. He is more and more wary and tries to get away from me. “Yeah, when you tell this story don’t forget to add the part where you walked away, bitch!” I shouted after him as he high tailed it up the subway steps.

Yeah, I know. Stupid. I’m not telling it because I am proud of myself.

I am telling it because between those two looks—when I looked at him as he was strangling me, and when he looked away to check if there were cops on the platform—there is a story about race in America. Racial invisibility is always relative and conditional, when you are discovered or reveal yourself, anything might happen. Looking the way that I do is sometimes like stumbling into a cave of sleeping bears, every interaction is a potential confrontation. The lack of instantly recognizable markers for racial or ethnic identity creates an atmosphere of potential threat. On the other hand, for people like my would-be strangler, whose skin color immediately marks him “other”, racial visibility makes him perpetually vulnerable to authority. I have no illusions that I chased him off by myself—it was the ghosts of white men with guns that sent him up the steps and away from me. It seems that we are all always moving in and out of visibility, depending on who is looking.

Like a Rorschach, the picture emerges between the black and white.


  1. I just wanted to say: incredible story, expertly told. Amazingly thought provoking.

    Thank you so much for sharing it.

  2. Good job, Joseph. For some reason the fight incident reminded me of the movie "Crash." Anyway, I guess that's a topic of discussion for another day. Since Twitter is outta control today with foolishness, let me just say "Yay!" again for ya here. P.S. -- "look twice" struck a chord. An acquaintance of mine who self identifies as Black and has African-American and Jewish grandparents "looks White" and has alternately experienced both racism and anti-Semitism. SIGH. Oppression really is a great big ole turd sammich.

  3. I said it on Racialicious, I'll say it here: this is an incredible essay. I was so blown away by your brilliant honesty. Great work, and I'm glad you're on the Racialicious team, Bro.

  4. I came accross your blog via stumble upon and Im glad i did, thank you for a thought provoking post

  5. Thanks all, for your feedback. The Racialicious thread has over a hundred comments on it but I am very happy to see some of you commenting here as well. I will continue to cross-post on Racialicious but there will be more original essays here at the Pomegranate as well. So I hope to hear from all of you again.