The Washington family against the scenic background of the Golden Gate Bridge. From left to right: Wayne Washington II, Erica Anderson, Wayne Washington, Shelia Washington and Ashley Washington.
The Washington family against the scenic background of the Golden Gate Bridge. From left to right: Wayne Washington II, Erica Anderson, Wayne Washington, Shelia Washington and Ashley Washington.

The old man needed some help.

He used his wheelchair as a sort of walker and slowly made his way onto the train with me, my family and others who were going from the Bay Area Rapid Transit System's Powell Street Station in downtown San Francisco to San Francisco International Airport.

We got on the wrong train and had to leave and wait for the next one.

I wanted to help the man because he was the last one to leave the train.

I had no idea that I would be calling for police in 20 minutes to get this old man away from me and my family.

A good place for a spring vacation

We spent the first three and half years of our marriage in California. It was 10 days after I graduated from college that we moved there.

We both grew up in South Carolina, but hadn't traveled a lot. California's mountains, its sunshine, diversity and expanse were a wonder.

California has held a special place in our hearts since those early days. We took our children on a cross-country drive when they were teenagers. We talked about the state with our son's fianc.

With the coronaviruses still limiting international travel, we chose to take a spring vacation in the Bay Area.

I planned out our trip so that we could see the Golden Gate Bridge, hit Chinatown, and ride on a cable car.

My plan was to rent an SUV for a couple days so we could drive down the coast, since I wanted to see Highway 1 and the Bixby Creek Bridge.

We were going to the airport because of that. We were going to pick up the rental and head to the old friend and her husband's house in Watsonville, where they were going to give us an aerial view of the Monterey area in his small airplane.

The use of private planes by those living near Palm Beach International has ire.

There is a nonstop flight between Los Angeles and West Palm Beach.

An aerial view of Big Sur
An aerial view of Big Sur

We were eager to board the train at the Powell Street Station when it finally arrived at the airport.

We sat together in a section on the train. I sat next to my wife. My son sat across from us and my daughter sat across from them.

The old man sat across from the train.

He came to the area where we were sitting because there were other places where he could have sat.

The man chuckled before the doors closed.

He said this must be the section for blacks.

I saw that his eyebrows were raised. We looked at each other. I knew I was not the only one wondering if he just said what he said.

We chose to ignore him.

The old man was not done.

He said that his skin was almost as dark as yours.

I noticed the bottle in the wheelchair basket when I looked at the man.

There was no questioning the man's prejudice now.

He was Asian American and drunk. He wore a black and gold cap.

I tipped my right hand to tell my family that the man was drunk.

Ignoring the man was not working.

He raised his voice.

"Hey!" he said. What are you doing in California?

He asked his own question when we didn't reply.

Having a good time, he said.

He wouldn't stop. What? Hey!

She turned her knees in the direction of us. The man was in the direction of the window.

Wayne looked at the man. I know when my son is angry.

She knows him as well. She put a restraining hand on his arm and patted him on the thigh. We all quietly said, "No, no."

Wayne looked up and took a deep breath before turning away from the old man.

After the old man lost control of his wheelchair, the train stopped at a station and remained open for a few minutes.

Two police officers are on the platform. I pointed to the old man when I got their attention.

I told the officers that the man had racially abused us, was drinking and had lost control of his wheelchair.

A minute or two later, the man was removed from the train by the officers.

I looked at the faces of my family.

We were in California because of my planning. We were on that train because of my planning.

I apologized to them and said we didn't deserve that.

No one spoke for a while. Wayne pointed to his heart and said that for him to say those things, they had to be in there.

I said I agree.

We were mostly silent as we got to the airport station.

"Would it be okay if we didn't go on the train again?", she asked. I don't feel safe on it.

I said yes.

A cloud that hangs overhead

I told my family as we walked toward the rental car counter. I have to get past these things. I try to forget them, but it takes a while.

The old man had made a cloud over us.

To be Black is to know there is a chance that you will be used for bigotry and bile by someone else. Just...

It doesn't happen every day. Most days it doesn't happen. It can happen on any day.

Politicians feed the racist beast, knocking the qualifications and credibility of even ridiculously qualified Black office-seekers or appointees and confirmation for some white people that their children don't need to learn about the nation's history of racism.

Being a bigot now isn't just vile and uncouth, it's a refusal to be politically correct.

The price of admittance is the absence of Black skin.

The old man on the BART train joined a group of people who add their bigotry to the bucket of bigotry Black people are forced to tote.

The white female teacher at my daughter's elementary school told us she was struggling in kindergarten because she was culturally deprived.

She said children can be culturally deprived if they live in a home where books and learning are not the top priority.

I told the woman that she was very young and shy.

I told her that I am a journalist and my wife works at a bank. I assure you that there is no culture that has deprived her.

She is a laboratory scientist in a local hospital in West Palm Beach and has a master's degree in clinical microbiology.

An old white man in South Carolina stopped my son while he was riding his bike with his friend to ask him if he lived there and that teacher was also on the list.

Instead of answering, Wayne rode home. When I confronted the man, he refused to apologize and said there were too many of us in the neighborhood.

The man gave his boss a choice: apologize or quit. He quit.

The Wellington confrontation renewed memories of a racist encounter.

There are five things I learned about my roots.

A white male newspaper editor refused to hire me for a job because he didn't think I was good enough.

He sought to belittle the work I had done to prepare for a career in journalism and the work I had done once I entered the profession after he declined to hire me.

My family and I were in a Walmart parking lot in Wyoming when a young white man threw a Nazi salute at us. He and the white guy were laughing as they walked to the store.

For a long time, we wondered what was wrong after a young, white female security guard followed Wayne and me in a Las Vegas mall store.

Wayne turned towards the young woman.

He asked why you were following them.

When random racism rears its head, that question captures some of what happens to Black people. We wonder if we did something wrong. Is it not racism or something else?

A stop on the northern California coast.
A stop on the northern California coast.

It shouldn't be on us

We don't always jump to racism. We look to see if there is another explanation for the treatment.

If it looks like racism, smells like racism, and sounds like racism, it is a good bet it is.

The old man on the train left me angry and powerless. I reproached myself. Should I have hit him? Why did I allow him to curse in front of my family? Why did I not move?

I know we shouldn't have to take action to avoid being the victims of racism.

What are the chances that Wayne would have been believed if he had argued that the man was abusing his family? Maybe Wayne has become involved in this wave of attacks on Asian Americans.

It would have been dangerous to bet that we would be believed.

The old man on the train was ugly.

Wayne Washington II and Erica Anderson at the Bixby Creek Bridge near Big Sur.
Wayne Washington II and Erica Anderson at the Bixby Creek Bridge near Big Sur.

California helped. We were spellbound by the offer of an aerial view of Monterey. Waves crashed into rocks. Mountains went into the sea.

We went back to Highway 1 the next day and took a lot of tourist pictures. She got her pictures near the bridge.

The Pacific Ocean roars. It can drown out anything.

For a while, anyway.

The article originally appeared on the Palm Beach Post.

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