An untrained ego perceives personal insult at the smallest slight. A strong dose of patience, peace, and understanding from the Holy Spirit is a reliable tonic. Or, if you’re Brittney Cooper, you can justify your irrational rage by imagining the insult is symptomatic of a unconscious, coordinated system of oppression.
On Friday, I was on the train to New York to do a teach-in on Ferguson at NYU. Beats headphones on, lost in thought, peering out the window, I suddenly saw a white hand shoving my work carry-on toward me. Startled, I looked up to see the hand belonged to a white guy, who was haphazardly handling my open bag, with my laptop perched just inside to make space for himself on the seat next to me.
That he wanted the seat on the now full train was not the problem. That he assumed the prerogative to place his hands on my bag, grab it, shove it at me, all while my computer was unsecured and peaking out, infuriated me. I said to him, “Never put your hands on my property.”
His reply: “Well, you should listen when I talk to you.” That line there, the command that when he, whoever he was, spoke, I should automatically listen encapsulates the breadth of the battle against racism we have to fight in this country.
Buoyed by his own entitlement, his own sense of white male somebodiness, this passenger never even considered that he might simply try harder to get my attention before putting his hands on my stuff. His own need to control space, his own sense of entitlement to move anything in his way even if it held something of value to another person, his belief that he had the right to do whatever he needed to do to make the environment conform to his will are all hallmarks of white privilege.
Poor little angel. Everyone’s out to get her!
If she were a feminist, it’d be his male privilege. If she were from Indiana, it’d be his Yankee privilege. The ideological model Cooper superimposes on her surroundings cares about skin pigment, so skin pigment is what she reduces this incident to.
I’d be embarrassed to reveal I’m so narcissistic and insecure that I want to attack anyone who doesn’t yield to my will. Cooper reinterprets these dark feelings to inflate her social justice credentials. This harmless subway encounter is her way of relating to the marchers in Selma and the Woolworth’s sit-in in Greensboro. She knows what the struggle is like. She’s experienced it first hand. So it goes.
If anything, the story explains why headphones should be banned in public. Cocooned with her private thoughts by her $180 headphones, she loses most ability to function socially. I get it. New York is a crowded, noisy, diverse city. New Yorkers suffer from social sensory overload. They can’t process it all, so they withdraw.
Taking minding your business to this level works so long as you don’t take up too much space or get in someone’s way, which Cooper did. If she could have heard her “oppressor” in the first place, she would have moved her bag herself so he could sit down. And then there’d be nothing to write about—except for hundreds of other meaningless encounters for the ego to smart at.