On a cold night of the New York City Spring, three young black women from South Africa got on to the subway to Manhattan from Queens. They had just seen Beyoncé live at Citi Field Stadium. For one of them it was the final night in the city, a month after she completed her Master's degree at Columbia University.
They were excited, and in sheer disbelief: there they were standing in a busy subway in one of the greatest cities in the world after watching one of the greatest entertainers in the world. As the train moved east through the city, the women shared their favourite moments of Queen Bey's performance, shrieking with delight every now and then as they revelled in her greatness. Each of them realised that while they were not members of The Hive, they respected her talent and hard work more than they ever knew.
The train was packed to capacity with barely enough space to take two steps. As they calmed down a white man stood next to them with a disgusted look on his face. One of the women who noticed it thought perhaps she was being overly sensitive. After all, she was from a country where race glaringly informed every experience she had. She was in New York now, the city where dreams come true. Things were different here, or so she had convinced herself to believe.
A few minutes after she managed to store away the thought that he was disgusted by their presence, the white man uttered something under his breath loudly enough for all of them to hear. All three women looked at each other for reassurance that what they heard was real. They spoke among each at this point, telling themselves he wasn't worth confronting. As soon as they said that he raised his voice repeating himself.
He was saying something about one of the young women's skin. She is a light skinned women and had bit of acne on her cheeks. He called it gross, saying she should do something about it and stop subjecting other people to looking at it. All three were stunned now. The one he said these nasty things about said to ignore him, but at that point one of her friends was already questioning this man's behaviour. She asked him what his problem was and why he was behaving the way he was. He said if they were going to talk about him then he would talk about them too. At this point the women started explaining themselves, making it clear all they said was that he looked annoyed at something. They were discussing the fact that he looked disgusted by them. This seemed to aggravate him even more. So then he started shouting and hurling more insults. Somewhere between calling them names and inching closer and closer to the friend who confronted him first, he said he was irritated with the woman he insulted because she had been pushing his girlfriend out of the way since they left Queens.
It was a cramped train. Everyone was being pushed and pulled at every jerk of movement. The women questioned why he hadn't addressed that in the first place and simply sorted out the issue. At this point the man waved his hand in her face, threatening her as if he was about to hit her. He was a little bit taller than her even though she was in heels and so she had to look up as he shouted down at her. Even though she felt small, she refused to back down -– he started this fight and she would not be bullied.
Everyone in the train just watched. No one moved except for another black woman who told the man to leave the women alone and stop being a bully. His girlfriend stood by him. Not a word escaped her lips. Her eyes showed fear, through them it seemed she was telling the women not to push him further and to leave it alone.
The women did not understand the reason for his aggression. They did not understand his failure to use his words, his girlfriend's silence, and the silence of everyone else surrounding them -- everyone except that one black woman who came to their defence.
Eventually he got off the train. Suddenly a black man next to them piped up, saying if that man had tried it with him, there would have been a fight.
This week as I watched Lebohang Mabuya fighting for herself in the Texamo Spur at The Glen Mall, I flashed back to that last night in New York City with my friends when I was subjected to that violence and rage. In the same way that everyone on that train stood by and watched the three of us fight the raging white man who found joy in making fun of a woman's skin, everyone in that Spur just watched. Only the people at the table next to them came to her defence. The black couple who made the video were like that one black woman on the train. Mabuya's attacker's partner just stood by him, she said nothing tangible -– she watched her partner scream and behave badly towards another woman. I could not see the fear in her eyes through the video but I wondered if this man's partner would have displayed the same fear she had seen on the train. I wondered about both those partners and whether their silence and compliance was based on a fear of these men –- if they were worried of getting involved because these men were violent with them at home too.
I remembered a documentary I watched called "The Mask You Live In", about boys and the dangers of telling them to "be a man" and defining masculinity in rage and anger. In it, it explains how boys are taught to mask their emotions with rage and anger. This can result in men acting out violently, as they have no other outlet for these bottled up feelings.
The man in the train and the man in the Spur could easily have used words to express their frustration. This would have made the situations easily solvable. Coupled with white male superiority, these men created dangerous situations for the women.
This young woman could theorise about the violent white men, she can theorise about their quiet, complicit white women partners. But what she cannot wrap her head around is, why did everyone around these women choose to be a bystander?