For months, I’ve been trying to figure out (along with many of you), what the heck happened this past November. As a scholar whose territory is racism and immigration, I have been immersed in self-flagellation—shouldn’t I have seen this coming? (By this, I mean: the election of a man who vocally supports racialized and discriminatory federal policy). The popular attitude among my activist-scholar peers is one of unshocked-ness, like a “nope! Not surprised! Saw this coming! Racism never died!” kinda attitude. And yes, yes, I get it.
But I also don’t get it.
Along with you all I have carefully followed resurgent racism as made visible in: murders of Black folk on the streets by police; massive deportations of undocumented people under President Obama and even more virulently under President Trump; hatred spewed towards Trans- folks, and on and on. Yet with respect to my peers, frankly—I am shocked by Trump’s election and by his enactment of anti-diversity & culture policies in his first 100 days in office: the Muslim Ban, defunding women’s health clinics, shutting down Standing Rock, among the rest.
Until a few days ago when, emerging from the 6 train, I walked through the streets of Spanish Harlem as bachata filled the air and kids on bikes zoomed by murals of famous trumpet players and Puerto Rican revolutionaries. I had an itty bitty epiphany. Donald Trump and I live in the same city. The same dizzying cultural melange, the same pulsating celebratory space that flagrantly shows off the world’s diversity. And thus—I AM shocked. Until I realized.
Donald Trump has most likely never taken the New York City subway.
Let me explain.
In the throbbing hubs of 14th street/Union Square, 42nd street/Times Square, and 34th street/Penn Station, one is exposed to World Music 101. We are talking swing bands, deep house, acapella, Hari Krishna chants, be boxers and jazz musicians: all told, music that has been formed, created and reinvented through the history of immigration to the United States. Sometimes folks in various stages of intoxication provide interpretive dance to the music, and that’s fun too. The other interesting thing to see on the subway are costumes. New Yorkers love them some costumes. This past Valentine’s Day I raced for a train with a Black woman wearing red jeans, a red blouse, four-inch red heels and the most adorable red sparkly hearts bouncing up and down on her head. On Easter– in addition to full out white bejeweled African Easter gowns—people of every skin shade sported assortments of headgear that including: towers of colorful Easter eggs, twigs and flowers arranged carefully in the shape of a top hat, and myriad types of bunny ears headbands.
New Yorkers aren’t allowed to eat on the subway, but we can take the subway to food. Ride the 7 train and New Yorkers can get a banh mi in Flushing (arguably the best banh mi in the U.S. despite my friend Truc’s claims about San Jose, California), South Indian buffet in Jackson Heights, and traditional diner style cheese-burgers in midtown.
I once designed a research project (I am an anthropologist by trade) to study a multilingual, immigrant boy from the Dominican Republic’s language use. I gave him an audio recorder and asked him to wear it for the day so I could collect samples of his sophisticated and creative play using Spanish, English, French and bits of Russian and Polish. What I didn’t expect was the transnational language ecology he interacted with as he moved through downtown Manhattan on the subway. Listening to the recordings, the subway emerged as its own form of classroom with nearby passengers playing the parts of teachers of Chinese from Fu Jian and Krio from Sierra Leone.
I must quickly note that New York City is a deeply segregated and economically stratified city, not all roses and peach margaritas. This is not to be forgotten as we celebrate our cultural production. But this post is about celebrating the good, and the snaking corridor that connects the city also connects people across boroughs and racial groups and economic divide.
Out of love and creativity and community interaction, people produce culture. The cultural displays, arrays and reinventions that people in my city (or any city or town that has absorbed cultural globalization and immigration, really) produce are our reward for soaring rents and bedbugs. The subway is a museum with a rotating display of technicolor and techno music and, sometimes uncomfortably—smell. We collectively cheer (or moan) for the many pole-swinging hip hop artists who demand our attention and a dollar. We crowd together in song on our way to protests, and write back naughty things to paid advertisements in black sharpie on the subway walls.
To ride the subway is to know the world. It is to press up against people from places you may never visit and cannot pronounce. To ride the subway is to fall in love, slowly, day after day, with difference. Not because it is a social good, or the “right thing to do”—but because difference is fascinating and a heck of a lot of fun. It seems to me that Donald Trump has been isolated in his limo, riding around a boring New York City emptied of everything wonderful and playful that makes it what it is.
Donald Trump doesn’t know us.
When I realized that, most likely, Donald Trump has never ridden the subway, I finally understood my own surprise. Trump kept his word and set up a fascist government. He enacted a Muslim Ban just a few days into office and is still pressing on with this ridiculous wall idea. (Let me note quickly here, and we can discuss it more in another post, that a physical structure cannot halt the effects of uncontainable and explosive cultural and economic globalization that Trump and his ilk have created through their unchecked neoliberal capitalist expansion. Money flows freely across borders and people follow. But I digress). I can’t help but think that Donald Trump doesn’t much like us. Us, the underbelly subway takers, us poor-ass- twodollarandfiftycent-spendin’ travelers. We are not his kinda people, us, us– passionate producers of culture and language and color. It’s a crying shame too– because we are cool AF.
When I think about how to heal this big huge messy painful racist trap that we have built for ourselves, my wish is this: that we dig into our bodies and our senses more, and release ourselves into the colorful cacophony of the lived experiences of people different to us. It is fashionable in multicultural circles these days to eshew “food and festivals” variety multiculturalism as simplistic and stereotypical. But there is something deeply powerful about simple exposure to people different to oneself, and something honorable and dignified about appreciating the cultural products of people we have never met before.
When I teach workshops on diversity one of the first things I have people do is walk around a neighborhood they don’t know, where people different to them live. I require workshop participants to do an “interview” with someone who lives in the neighborhood—a simple exchange of information about self and place. It is the piece of the curriculum that my workshop participants resist the most. It is ultimately the piece that they report as having transformed their thinking the most. We can read about difference, and watch documentaries about the social good. But to experience cultural, linguistic and racial diversity with our bodies changes us on a cellular level. We may learn to like and appreciate one another just a little bit more.