The (Black/Muslim) Man on the Bus

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Chicago IL. 11th April 2016. Monday morning.

I took the bus to work this morning. It’s a 20-minute ride. It was a pre-rush-hour bus; not more than 10 passengers, so I got my preferred seat on the left-side window, 2nd seat up the steps. It was a regular Monday morning, making my way to the office early to get a head-start to my week. Nice 50-degree tee-shirt weather. Bluetooth headphones connected listening to some Beatles tracks.

My Monday morning happy-place was interrupted by someone speaking very loudly, almost screaming from the back seat row. It was a few seconds of a loud harsh voice screaming, “RED ALERT. WARNING!” I paused my music for a few seconds to confirm what I heard, then, safely concluded the presence of a not-uncommon drunk homeless person on the bus.

Back to my music.

A couple of minutes later, the screaming was back, “ALLAH-HE-AKBAR-ALLAH!”. And I froze. This time, it wasn’t just me. A few more passengers looked around, visibly edgy, but not really reacting.

Silence.

Part of me had actually begun to fear for what could have been coming. The air had gotten thicker than a foggy Chicago morning.

Now, my music was paused again, my ear almost bending back with how keenly I was listening in to what was happening behind me. I was consciously aware of my heartbeat. There were a couple of people sitting behind me on the other side as well. I’m sure they would have got up if there really was something suspicious. But, I looked sideways to the widest stretches of my peripheral vision and associated the voice with the black skinned man sitting a couple of seats behind me.

A couple of minutes pass. The man starts singing, “Mama, just killed a man. Put a gun against his head. Pulled the trigger, he’s dead.” Being a well-established bathroom singer myself, I could appreciate the lack of tune and missed notes in his rendition of one of my favorite songs of all time, but why the lines about someone who killed a man?

Silence. A couple of minutes pass. He started singing again.

“MAMA, DO YOU THINK THEY DROPPED THE BOMB ON ME?!?” I don’t know if it’s better or worse that I didn’t know this song. He sang a couple of lines and came back to the first one, his voice noticeably louder for his chorus.

The next 5 minutes were a combination of alternated silence and loud humming. I was definitely more relaxed but hadn’t gotten myself to play my music, yet. Then, I heard him rummaging around in his pockets and his jackets hitting the seat in front of him with a loud thud a couple of times… And he got up.

Walked ahead to the back door exit of the bus, kept his black bag on a nearby seat and stood there. And I finally saw him. A black man, a little less than 6 feet. An unlit cigarette in his mouth, heavy jacket, dirty jeans, a sweater and a dark blue Muslim cap. I didn’t know what to make of it. He started singing again, some lines about “a bullet comes shooting down on you” while looking straight at the lady in front of that door.

At the next stop, he stepped close to the exit door. He hadn’t taken his backpack. And I thought to myself, “if he steps off without his bag, you run for your friggin’ life!!”

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And he almost did. He leaned his head out, looked around on either side of the street and came back in. He looked straight at the CCTV camera right at the door, pointed at it and then shook his index finger in a disapproving way saying, “no, no. Not this time” or something like that, with a smug smile on his face.

He eventually stepped off at the next stop, with his backpack. And I felt a huge sigh of relief.

At the end of it, I couldn’t help but think what had just happened. That man caused no real harm to me or anyone on the bus. And yet, I had an elevated heart-rate, kept myself alert to my surroundings, ready to judge and run.

In retrospect, would I have felt the same way if I hadn’t heard the “Allah” part of it? I most certainly think not. A homeless guy in the bus loudly singing random songs would not make me fear for my safety.

Would I have felt safer if he was a white guy who didn’t sing an “Allah” chant? Looking back again, of course I would! A random white homeless guy singing songs at the back of the bus? Even if he started with a slogan about some Hindu god or perhaps, a Jesus worship chant… Totally cool with that. I’d just turn up my headphones and get back to my music.

The issue, I concluded, was my tendency to be suspicious of him coz he was a black man, or a Muslim man, or both.

I know I’m not a prejudiced person. I don’t judge people. I’ll nod a ‘good morning’ to a black person on the road as much as I would a white or brown person. I’d smile at a person without needing to know their religion. I couldn’t care less for religion myself. And I have amazing Muslim friends here in Chicago, as well as back home in India and from Pakistan. Heck, my roommate is one!

But, when it comes to suspecting people, I’d be quicker to judge a black man being shady in the bus than of a white man… Less trusting of a man shouting “Allah” chants in the bus than of someone else. And no matter how much I try to tell myself otherwise and prove myself a man pure in the principles of equality and nobility, today was proof of that I’m not.

That’s also why this article is titled with “Black/Muslim” in parenthesis. What sort of picture would you have painted if the title was “The Man on the Bus”. It’s an excellent title for a story about the man who offered his seat to a pregnant lady on a crowded bus and paid her fare, isn’t it?

And ultimately that’s the problem in the system. Hate towards Muslims. Racism in law enforcement. Higher incarceration rates in black communities. Sure, there are so many other factors that play in… Education, access to opportunity, bias in media portrayals, general bad influences, families, etc. But, we are part of it as well.

It matters not that he didn’t cause any harm. What matters is the reason I suspected that he could.

White privilege is a thing. Non-Muslim privilege is, too.