I woke up to multiple tags, mentions etc. on Instagram and at first, I was wondering what had happened, then I realised that the buzz was about a video I had posted some days ago on Instagram. The video (here - https://www.instagram.com/p/BeXD00Bgj7A/?r=wa1) showed me sitting next to an empty seat in the train while many were standing and I wrote briefly about one of my many encounters, which I will elaborate on here. Well, Instablog9ja posted it, thanks guys! You’ve given me some seconds of fame J LOL. On a serious note, I am glad that it was re-posted as it’s given me a platform to create awareness on this issue.
Picture of my umbrella comfortable sitting during a train ride :)
So, I read some of the comments – I could not read all of them as they were too many but the ones I read were enough to give me an idea of how to respond. Before I continue, I have to say that I was impressed with how passionately people commented on these posts, whether positive or negative. It shows how invested and observant people are in certain matters and secondly, it shows how sensitive the topic is.
In the beginning, it took me a while to notice that I almost always sat alone in the bus or train. Somehow, my bag always had a seat of its own and I honestly did not mind because my bag is usually heavy. I just assumed that if people wanted to sit next to me, they would ask me to remove my bag, which had happened on very few occasions. However, one day after a period of time, I started to feel like it was possible that majority of the people here were too nice to ask and so I tried to stop keeping my bag on the other seat. Guess what? My other seat still remained empty! And so I went back to keeping my bag on the seats. At that time, I still had not associated this pattern to my background or ethnicity; as a matter of fact, I barely gave it any thought. I have to admit I was comfortable sitting by myself, either reading a novel or listening to music during transportation and did not care less until one day, an African friend of mine was in the bus with me. As usual, my bag sat and he questioned why. I responded casually “because nobody would sit there anyway”. He laughed and said that I was correct. I was surprised at how quickly he agreed with me and later on, he explained that he had noticed that many people did not like to sit next to black people in the city and so his seat was usually empty or the last to be sat on. I was shocked to hear that and honestly, that was the first time that the thought of any association of this seating pattern with my background crossed my mind. I shrugged like I did not care and responded “that’s fine then, my bag can continue to sit” and tried not to give the matter anymore thought.
Fast forward to some months later, I was visiting a couple of friends in Sweden and we all got on the train together. We sat at some empty 4-seater area, i.e., those areas that have 2 seats on each side opposite each other. By the next stop, some other passengers had come on the train and one of them did not have any seat. So I began making gestures to show her that we had an empty seat but my friend told me not to bother myself, that people did not like to sit next to black people and I responded “In Sweden too?!” And that was how we began to talk about our observations. As usual, I tried to explore other options - maybe the passenger did not feel comfortable sitting in the midst of 3 people that she did not know, especially if they all appeared to be friends but my friend shook her head; she said she had also noticed it when she sat by herself and repeated exactly the same thing that my other African friend had said - about the next seat to her being the last to be sat on.
Although I had heard similar views from 2 Africans and a few more people after then, I remained unconvinced. The researcher in me needed to do her own research to make valid conclusions and so from that day, I began conducting personal experiments. I tried to make difference excuses – perhaps it was the seat that I sat on, maybe the seats were reserved for the elderly or maybe they were faced in the opposite direction of travel and so people would not want to sit on them; perhaps, people preferred window seats; perhaps, I did not look very friendly; perhaps, it was the way I carried my bag, maybe it looked too bulky and a passenger would think that it would hit them; perhaps it was the manner with which I sat, maybe I spread my legs too widely and so I was taking some space of the other seats; perhaps the music sound from my earphone was too loud; perhaps I made loud phone calls inside the bus etc., you name it, I thought it. I tried to test out my different “research hypotheses” by changing seating positions, squeezing myself to create more space, trying to relax my face to look more friendly (at the risk of even looking weird, lol), holding my bag in different positions such that my arm hurt sometimes, not making calls in the bus (which I hardly ever did anyway), and in general making changes that I thought would be suitable to invite another passenger. After many different adaptations, I came to the realisation that indeed the seat next to me usually remained empty or would be the last to be filled, at least 90% of the time! Although, I agree that that there are some exceptions e.g. some people naturally prefer to stand on the bus or do not bother to sit if they are going to get off soon, or that some seats are reserved for the elderly or disabled (however, you can sit in those areas until an elderly gets on the bus or train and that’s when you are required to stand), I had seen enough to make my own research conclusions. I finally accepted what some of my friends had earlier pointed out – that the reason why people did not frequently sit next to me in transit was most likely because I was African or black.
Now, is this racism? I am not an expert on this topic; therefore, I did not label it as such (if you read my Instagram post). However, I definitely think that there’s some form of systematic bias, whether conscious or not, and I am even more convinced of it now, based on the responses that I got from people after I posted that video on my Instagram page a couple of days ago. A lot of people attested to it and one of my friends pointed out that even when people eventually sat next to you, they would only sit with half bum-bum (buttocks), i.e., they tried not to let their bodies touch you. Don’t get me wrong, I am not saying that strangers should fall on your shoulders when they sit next to you; of course there should be a respectable space as much as possible, however, it’s quite obvious when someone sits next to you with an attitude depicting that they would rather not have. I had told myself not be concerned about such issues and I have been doing a great job at it such that I barely notice this behaviour as much as before. So why did I make that video? Because it was perfect timing, I was bored on the train, it happened and I like to make random videos. And why did I post that video? Initially, I was not going to but coincidentally, I was having a conversation with a friend of mine that evening and she was telling me about an awful experience that she had just had, which she thought was based on bias and discrimination. Hers was of a much more important issue, it’s personal so I cannot write about it. However, our discussion made me feel like it is important to shed light on issues relating to potential bias, as often times, people are not even aware that they are victims or the causes. Therefore, I posted the video.
So I hope this post addresses some of the comments on my Instagram or on Instablog9ja. I can understand that some people living in the same country but in other cities might not have the same experiences. I guess if you live in a city densely populated with Africans, then people would be forced to sit down next to you because they cannot afford to stand throughout their journeys, all the time; that is not the case for me as I am usually the only black person on the bus or train in my city unless I am with a fellow African friend. It is also possible that people in such diverse cities are more exposed and so tend to show less attitude of bias. Whatever, the case might be, I’d say make sure you don’t let people’s attitude towards you make you feel less of yourself.
Having written all these, I’d love to wish everyone a happy weekend and please feel free to check out my blog stories here on my blog and on Bella Naija (my last post on Bella Naija can be found here). Until next time, continue to spread love. xx
Please follow me on Instagram @Ugochiukah and twitter @vivio_gogo