SBS 301 Cultural Diversity/Prof. Koptiuch         Fall 2003        Personal Memory Ethnographies

Anonymous by request

What Side Would I Choose?

For most of my youth, I was sheltered from the realities of race and class struggles. Perhaps that is why my first encounter with race and class difference, in the mid 1980s, is an event that plays in my memory like a clip from a movie. It occurred when I was in middle school; it took place on the school bus.  I went to a large-size middle school in Kansas City, Missouri, mostly populated by kids with wealthy parents.  In retrospect, I see clearly that my bus route traversed the race and class “borderlands” of my community.  It was a very long route that picked up a lot of kids from the edges of many different neighborhoods.  I lived in an average, middle-class neighborhood.  Most of the bus stops however, were in very upper-class neighborhoods.  These kids always sat in the back of the bus.  There was one solitary stop at a run-down apartment complex where mostly black kids lived.  They sat in the front of the bus because those were the only seats available at the end of the route. 

photoIt is important to note at this point that each neighborhood comprised a very distinct group of kids who tended to socialize with the kids from his or her own neighborhood. The rich kids were friends with children from other well-to-do families; I was friends with kids who lived in modest homes like mine. There were not many friendships that extended beyond one’s street or one’s race.  I barely knew the rich white kids or poor black kids that were on the bus.  I felt out of place speaking with any class other than my own.

One day, we had a substitute bus driver and he drove our route backwards by mistake.  Instead of ending with the apartment complex stop, we started there.  The black kids sat in the rear of the bus where the rich white kids usually sat.  I can only imagine what they might have thought, boarding the bus to see that the back seats were empty.

Hey! Check it out! We’re the first ones on today. Let’s take the good seats this time. Yeah, a little change of pace. They can sit in the front today, worrying about getting written up by the bus driver. We’ll sit in the back where we can talk and get away with stuff.

My stop was the next stop, the middle stop on the route. Looking back that seems symbolic: Middle stop, middle class, in the middle of this situation. Needless to say, I sat in the middle of the bus out of habit.  When the rich kids got on the bus, they went past rows of empty seats, immediately headed towards the back.

Hey! What the heck? Those are our seats. I’ll just tell them to move. They have no right to our seats. We’ve been sitting there this whole year!

They told the black kids to get out of their seats.  A few times in the past, I had overheard the black kids talking about the fights they had been in and the trouble they had gotten into after beating someone up.  Of course, I had no idea if what they were saying was true or not.  Nevertheless, I expected a “rumble” between the black kids and the rich kids.  What surprised me the most at the time was that the black kids got up and moved towards the front of the bus without protest.  I always wondered why the black kids didn’t at least argue or tell them, “No, we were sitting here first.”  After all, most school kids like to argue over everything. 

As this incident progressed, I remember feeling worried. This feeling stemmed from a fear of a being pulled into the fight because it was happening right in front of me. I was also afraid of being pulled into the fight because I could see both sides’ points of view. This created conflict and fear for me because I knew I would be expected to join the white kids, even though both sides had equal claim to the disputed seats on the bus. Looking back, I also find it interesting that I would have been expected to fight alongside the rich white kids, even though I was lower class than they. This makes me realize that race was a more unifying factor than class.

Seventh grade, and junior high as a whole, was a time during which I was forming my beliefs about myself and about others. As a nervous and unsure adolescent, this incident played upon my own fears about not fitting in or being accepted by others. Today, when I reflect upon this incident, I realize that it served as one of my first experiences in class and race conflict.

There are several reasons why this incident has stayed with me over time.  One reason is that it was the first time I remember being a witness to a racially charged confrontation.  It was the first time I remember seeing through the surface as to what some may see as a strictly territorial dispute.  Junior high students are creatures of habit and have a tendency to prefer consistency from day to day; for example sitting in the same seat everyday on the bus.  However, the significance of this incident was that it wasn’t just about sitting in the same seats.  It was a white/black and rich/poor face-off. 

It is difficult to speculate what the other kids were feeling or what discrepancies there might be in my memory.  For me “the other”, in this incident, included both the rich white kids and the poorer black kids.  Since I was just a spectator to the clash of race and class rivalry, my memory of the event could be distorted from the actual reality of what happened.  As merely a witness, I mentioned that I was shocked that the black kids did not resort to physical confrontation.  Looking back, I realize that I may have had some unfair views regarding blacks because I expected the black students to respond aggressively, which they did not. 
I also believe that this incident has stayed with me for so long because I will never know each side’s true motivation or feelings about the matter.  Was there a lack of confrontation because the black kids felt intimidated or fearful on a school bus with mostly white kids?  Was it because the black kids knew they were in different seats and that there was an unspoken rule of, “I always sit here”?  Was I expecting the black kids to use the childish yet all too prevalent, “I was here first” reply? With the thought of a potential fight looming, I remember thinking, “If I’m pulled into this, what side will I choose?”  At the time, I thought both sides had fair reason to want to sit where they did.  Watching this incident take place made me more aware of which side I identified with, the white side.  Now that I am an adult it is easier to stand-up for myself and other people.  But as a teenager, I wonder what I would have done if I thought the black kids deserved those seats more.  Which side would I have chosen then?

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