So You Like to Put People in Boxes, Huh?

No matter what city you’re in, public transportation brings with it a set of interesting experiences. Playing the where should I sit game; keeping the mean mug on so people will think twice about bringing their crazy in your direction; positioning your electronic devices and monthly passes in ways that keep you from getting got (being robbed). Riding the rails also gives you plenty of time to observe others, and if you’re cool, observe yourself as you do it.

American society has taught us to put people in boxes. For example, have you ever seen a person who looked “racially ambiguous,”? Don’t act like its just me. You have seen this person on the subway or on the street. You look and try to fit him/her into a racial group. And if you sit across from him/her, chances are, you glance at them repeatedly in an effort to figure out “what he/she is”.

Or take the man dressed in slacks carrying a briefcase or man-bag of sorts. You assume you know about him, especially if he is headed downtown (pause). Yep, he probably works in an office to do office stuff. Then you try to figure out that ordinary looking black guy, or you assume you already know about him too.

I’m not saying that this is right or wrong. It kinda is what it is. We see people with certain physical characteristics or external features (skin tone, hair texture, assumed age, shirt with a certain label, a bar through the lip, tattered jeans, tatted up neck and forearms, pregnant belly, gym bag) and we size them up. This sizing up process happens so fast, and so often, we often don’t know its happening.

Sometimes this sizing up influences our posture towards people. Some are “safer” to sit next to than others. Its okay to share glances with some. Others, we shy away from. We hug our purses or man-bags a little tighter. We speed up our pace. Either way, we work to reconcile something within ourselves.

Why has this process became an issue for me now? Because I feel myself doing it. I find myself feeling unsafe around groups of teenagers. I get concerned by the goth-looking boy. I assume that the older man in tattered clothes is out to do me some harm, or sometimes, I feel sorry for him. I look at the young woman with an attitude because it looks like she’s giving me one. I try to figure out what’s going in the head of that solemn looking person staring out the window.

What’s amazing, is that this process takes no real time or concentration. My mind works crazy fast, yo.

And I know people try to box me too. Have you ever locked eyes with someone as he/she was giving you the once over? A bit of an awkward moment, I know. Depending on what the person looks like, and what kind of vibes his/her superficial appearance gives, you tailor your reaction accordingly. If the person is big and scary, I tend to squirm a little, and look away quickly. If he/she looks creepish, I may do the same, or if I’m feeling gangsta, I’ll give them that “don’t you be looking at me” look. If he is a handsome, well dressed black man, I may bat my lashes a little. Hehehe.

The next time you get on the train or bus, or even walking down the street, try paying attention to yourself as you pay attention those around you. Then come back and tell me about it, mmk?  Thanks.


6 responses to “So You Like to Put People in Boxes, Huh?

  1. Men don’t really do the box thing. We just do the X-ray thing.

  2. I’m guilty as heck of making assumptions despite my knowing better. Each time I see a young pregnant girl or woman under 21 on public transit; I assume that they hate using contraception. I assume that they probably don’t have life-long relationship with the “baby’s daddy.” I assume that they might be a little sad/angry about being pregnant at such young age. I assume that they must be thinking “Oh well…Party Dun!” I know that’s only me projecting my own emotions and thoughts on to them. I know that’s how I will feel if I ever got pregnant before the age of 35.

  3. There’s too many people in the world to give everyone a good once over (pause). Especially in a crowded city, I just don’t have the energy to think of everyone as having hopes and dreams and all that shit. If I’m on the Metro or the T, I’m thinking “Cop uniform, probably wants to catch me with the taser, eyes front, fine thick chick, looks like hood rat, probably got the monster, eyes front, older man in a suite and tie, probably robbed my 401k, eyes front”. Stereotypes are just way too efficient, and I can’t really hate on people who try to type cast me. I’ll give people a chance if they try to stand out as being individual in their actions, but on the real, you get got too quick if you don’t have your gaurd up cause you’re thinking “well maybe this skin head is different”.

  4. I dont try to analyze everyone but I do find the most interesting looking person and I wonder about their life and where they’re going and coming from. One time I was on the train with a lady friend and we spoke for 45 mins about where I thought the loud flamboyant teenager was going/coming from.

  5. After riding the train day after day for a while I, too, began to recognize that I was sizing people up, trying to fit them in boxes…even got to the point where when I caught people giving me the once over, I’d stare back at them until they felt uncomfortable enough to stop looking at me. But maybe I’m just interesting to look at; since it’s hard to know for sure, I’ve stopped being a contra-creeper cuz what if they’re just admiring my outfit or my hair – genuinely trying to figure me out for curiosity sake…but then again it also depends on the manner of the size up (chick giving me the evil eye/dude grunting licking lips/things like that).

    But nonetheless I realized I had a problem when I started listening too hard to the random and usually obnoxious/inappropriate conversations that people have on the train. My mind works crazy fast too, and I found myself time & time again giving my 2-cents (inside my head) and placing people into smaller and smaller boxes. Hella annoying & actually kinda energy consuming – my mind shouldn’t be working that hard to figure people out. I had to finally replace my ipod that had been stolen months before just to get away. $249 = piece of mind and a retreat into the box of sorts that’s my own..

  6. As I went to sit down on the train today, my heel accidentally tapped the shoe of a young black male wearing white Air Force Ones, making a subtle yet mildly apparent scuff mark. At that moment, my heart started racing and my life flashed before my eyes I just knew I was about to get caught up in a “ni99a moment” (credit: Boondocks, which says “expensive sneakers are like $150 landmines, step on one and BOOM! a perfectly rational person explodes”).

    But I digress…the point is, I put him in a box. Even being the rational Black woman that I am, I automatically went into “oh, you don’t wanna see my attitude” mode thinking he was bout to get hood on me, when all he did was dramatically wipe the scuff away and held back tears. I told him to man-up apologized, and he got up and went to the other side of the train. That was definitely the least of my expectations, but uhm, maybe he accurately put me in a box and knew better…

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