Standing Room Only.
"That's why I'm voting for Trump, send all ya'll motherf***ers back on the banana boat."
So when I got on the Philly subway earlier today, after passing by the ticket booth with my $2.25 in exact change, it all somehow felt familiar. And even though I could see the nearest oncoming train car was totally full, the thought never occurred to me that I should pass up the train for an emptier, more breathable ride. I waded through the train's crowded entryway, as did two or three or four others behind me, and then the doors unceremoniously closed.
She Had a Captive Audience.
Ultimately, the same man entered, the train's doors closed, and their verbal exchange escalated as he passed by her on his entrance. All I could hear besides their voices was the sound of the train moving along the rails below us. Beyond that, everyone else on the train was a silent observer--so was I.
W: "Lemonhead bitch...why you pushin on me, wait and let these people off!"
The woman herself appeared to be African American, and her speech relayed a feeling of familiarity and ownership of her place in Philly. She was from here. The man was shorter than her, and appeared to be Hispanic. While the woman faced away from me and my position on the other side of the train's entryway, the man walked around to grab onto a handrail towards the center of the train car in a position facing me. I had a clear view of his face as the woman's barrage of insults directed his way continued. He didn't say much in response, but I could detect an accent of some kind. Maybe he wasn't originally from Philly. Neither was I. He just glared, and slowly shook his head.
The Subtext Was Still There: Inequality.
There was a bit more to it, something about paying too many taxes and having "them" come in and benefit from it, (I'm only including in my account what I can directly remember) and then she got quiet. No one else said anything, not even the man.
I looked down at my feet--or my shoes, rather. It was a rainy day, everyone had sneakers or boots on, some carried umbrellas, and here we were, all on the same train. I couldn't help but think how the exchange I had just witnessed had manifested so much inequality. There was no way you could mistake the exchange between woman and the man for some type of conversational alignment. Their manners of speaking were the antithesis of equal--one person got all of the words in. She spoke louder than he, and arguably with more force. These were not moments of communication.
Still, the subtext was one of access to opportunity. As I stood there in the train car, within sight of the both of them, I reflected on how this woman's anger was drawing upon her reality of being financially exploited, misunderstood, and undervalued. She was disempowered, and it could have been that hurling insults at this man she couldn't and would never know personally, would momentarily counteract those feelings. The man was disempowered in more than one way, too, but perhaps differently. Circumstances had required him to work his way onto a crowded train, and that had caused friction. Then, he seemed to have few words in English to verbally participate in an exchange that had openly escalated. This was not ideal communication. Rather, it was an example of linguistic inequality.
We're All on the Same Train.
Respect grows when we learn about one another, and when we share the burden of challenging conversations that lead to introspection and encourage change. While the train car wasn't the best place for these conversations, I was still proud of myself for not immediately siding with the woman when I had seen it all go down. Instead, I made an attempt to more critically process what I had witnessed, and think about the humanity of each of them, the woman and the man. It was a move away from a passive recording of events, and move toward critically engaging the impact of the exchange I had observed and participated in while on the Philly subway.
These are moments of reflection I know I have encouraged through the #LanguageStory project, by sharing my insights on human experience and human interaction, but also as a critical pedagogy I facilitate with my students. I approached my students as a project team, and encouraged them to view the project as their opportunity to engage more with Philadelphia. I directed them to talk to people they didn't know about places they had begun to observe and participate in for the project: a restaurant, Quaker Meeting, coffeehouse, community center, knitting collective, urban mural.
Linguistic inequality mirrors the deleterious effects of
unequal access to opportunity across multiple sectors of society.
Together, we are using this video project and blog to more deeply consider our lives as a dynamic matrix of interactions in landscapes of words, sounds, and culturally-informed language. This is the core of our paradigm of engaged research. In this way, we follow in the footsteps of so many others, activists, sociolinguists, and anthropologists--notably Dell Hymes--who have also angled for our exploration and study of human behavior and interaction to further our understanding of how linguistic inequality mirrors the deleterious effects of unequal access to opportunity across multiple sectors of society.
While my Philly train ride wasn't the best time for me to make a rousing speech about inequality and inequity, it did become a place for to engage in deeper self-reflection. My conclusion? We're all on the same train.