I’m a white New Yorker in her early 60s. I had to take a cab from Chelsea to the Upper West Side, and the driver was charming and helpful; we also had an engrossing conversation about his difficult working conditions. Then we reached my destination. As I was waiting for my change, a black woman—about 70, wearing an elegant gray coat and using a cane— approached the cab. The expression on the driver’s face changed from warmth to disgust. The woman put her head near his window and asked: “Can you take me? I’m from South Carolina and going to Harlem to do some shopping.”
“No, I have a passenger,” he said.
“Oh, no, I’m just getting out,” I told the woman.
“No! My meter is broken. The cab is out of service.”
“You can take her,” I said. “Would you like me to pay for her?” The driver didn’t say anything. I got out, helped the woman in, and watched them ride off.
So here are my questions: First, I didn’t get his name or number, but if I had, should I have reported him to the Taxi and Limousine Commission (TLC)? Second, “I’ll pay for her”? I had no idea I was going to say that until the words popped out of my mouth, but what was that? Obviously, she could pay for herself. Afterward, I wondered: Was that my way of saying, “I don’t know her, but I’m standing with her”? Or was I saying: “I’m white, I’ve got money and authority, and you have to do what I say”?
We are constantly exhorted in these Trump- ravaged times to speak out against bigotry. This is not always easy to do in the moment, but you did your best! You had to tell a friendly new acquaintance how wrong he was, which is awkward and hard. But you’re right to query your impulsive offer to pay for the visitor; not only did the driver likely resent this move for the reasons you suggest, but the woman herself might have bristled. Since cab drivers sometimes refuse black passengers on the racist assumption that they won’t pay, your well-meaning gesture risked magnifying his insult. But coercing a person to make a little more money by not acting on his prejudices is not abusive. Yours was a decent use of privilege.