Vacation Memories Marred by the Indelible Stain of Racism

Shanna B. Tiayon recalls an interaction with a National Parks Service bus driver that cast a pall on a family trip to the Grand Canyon.

Shanna B. Tiayon | Longreads | June 2019 | 9 minutes (2,384 words)

As I looked out the bus window I was awestruck by the magnificence and vastness of the canyon that stretched farther than my eyes could see. I stared at the brown hues with hints of red, orange and blue, and the rock textures that were still visible even from a distance. The Grand Canyon was breathtaking and I was taking it all in for the last time as the bus drove by.

A loud voice disturbed the peace of my window gazing.

“There’s no eating on the bus,” it said. “The kid — she dropped the paper and there’s no eating on the bus.”

My eyes never left the window. When the disruption passed, I turned my thoughts to our trip. It was March, 2018. Hailing from the DC Metro area, this was the first trip we took as a family after I completed my PhD program in May, 2017.

My husband and I, with our four kids ranging in age from 2 to 20, had just finished the arduous but magnificent hike of the canyon’s Cedar Ridge Trail. The hike was challenging, but we made it. As I sat on the bus returning to the Visitors’ Center, I could already feel my muscles starting to tense up from navigating the trail’s 6,120-foot elevation gain.

“The paper,” the voice interrupted again, “somebody needs to pick that paper up.”

This time I turned my head towards the front of the bus, realizing that the person spoiling my daydreaming was the bus driver. The National Park Service bus driver glared at us through the rearview mirror, gesturing towards a Kind bar wrapper my 2-year old had accidentally dropped on the floor. We weren’t the only ones eating on the bus, but we were the only ones being admonished for it. Also, we were the only Black family on the bus. In fact our family represented 6 out of the total 8 Black people on the trail at all that day, among dozens of White visitors.

I bent down to pick up the paper just as we arrived at the second stop. The bus driver pressed the brake. Still partially out of my seat, my body lunged forward with the momentum of the bus. When it came to a complete stop, my back jolted to the back of the seat. I looked up and the bus driver was now out of her seat, coming towards us with her hands flailing. She was a thin-framed, older White woman, I guess in her early 60’s, with long, straight, bleach blond hair hanging down her back. Wide-framed, tinted glasses sat on her face. She had on dark jeans and a red puff vest, and she reeked of cigarette smoke.

She stopped within a foot of my family. “I need you all to get up and move to the back,” she said. “I need those seats so the passengers can board.”

We’d been the last ones to board the bus at the South Kaibab Trailhead, adjacent to the Cedar Ridge trail. By the time our family of six got on the bus, the only seats left were those reserved for the elderly and the disabled at the front of the bus. We looked around and there were no elderly or disabled people in need of the seats, so we sat down, as we’d seen so many other able bodied individuals do during our two day stay at the canyon. We occupied five of the eight reserved seats (we held our 2-year-old), and we were fully prepared to relinquish a seat if necessary.

We weren’t the only ones eating on the bus, but we were the only ones being admonished for it. Also, we were the only Black family on the bus.

The bus driver started to make shooing motions at my 12-year-old son telling him to, “Move, go!”

I slowly turned my head to look out the window at the bus stop, expecting to see a senior citizens’ group waiting to board. Instead I saw one elderly White woman with a walker, a middle aged White woman and a younger looking White man.

I turned my head and counted the seats still available at the front of the bus – one, two, three. I turned my head back to the bus stop and counted the passengers, only one of whom had any rightful claim to the reserved seating – one, two, three.

The bus driver stood there, refusing to continue the trip until we got up. The silence on the full bus was palpable.

My husband yelled out, “This is ridiculous,” as he got up in frustration. We relented and vacated our five seats. The passengers boarded, took the seats in the front and the bus driver went back to her seat. As the bus pulled away from the bus stop to continue to the Visitors’ Center, it was like a scene from the 1950’s. My Black family stood in the aisle, while five seats at the front of the bus remained empty. I heard my 18 year-old daughter say, “What the…”, stopping short of the natural profanity that should close that phrase, and my 12-year-old son looked at me, confused.

I had no answers for my son, as I was still processing everything myself, so I turned around and looked at the other, predominantly White, passengers on the bus, many of whom had high-fived us and cheered us on along the trail, only to meet averted gazes and choked throats. No one wanted to confirm what I knew my family was experiencing, no one wanted to risk demonstrating any active expression of empathy. Until, shortly after we pulled away from the bus stop, one White woman rubbed my hand, looked at me remorsefully and got out of her seat, gesturing for my oldest daughter to sit down with the 2-year-old.

Her gesture meant that we were not invisible. This was not a figment of our imaginations.

In the only act of defiance he could think of, my husband grabbed my hand and said, “Come on, we’re sitting in those seats,” pulling me towards the remaining seats at the front of the bus. I sat down in a fog, leaned on my husband, and completed my daughter’s poignant observation in my head: “What the hell!”

***

Racism is insidious. Even with a lifetime of lived racist experiences, I’m still caught off guard every time it happens to me. Moments before the bus scene, my family and I were trotting down the Cedar Ridge Trail, a three-mile out-and-back trail in the Grand Canyon trail system, carrying our 2-year-old daughter in a blue hiking backpack we borrowed from a friend. I carried all 30 pounds of her down the trail, perched on my back like the Queen of Sheba. I received great accolades of supermomdom from others on the trail that day, mostly Whites, some foreign, most not. My husband, God bless him, carried her back up the trail, bypassing others along the way. He was met with casual chitchat on the way up, and was applauded for his athleticism.


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We got back to the top of the trail as a family, proud and grateful for the opportunity to see one of the seven natural wonders of the world. Little did we know at the time of the racism that awaited us on the bus — racism that our elated spirits weren’t prepared to receive, yet our subconscious minds feared could be a possibility. Racism that would intrude upon our experience, seeping into the cracks of our joy and tainting the memory of our family vacation.

For most of the assault on the bus, we would stand alone, literally and figuratively. A mother, father, and four kids, cloaked in their invisible middle class status, high level of education, and accomplished children, none of which would be enough to save us from being viewed as other. With our visible similarities too disparate and the assault to my family perhaps not egregious enough, our humanity would be overlooked on the bus that day by all except one woman who dared to acknowledge our humanity and give up her seat; who chose to be an ally.

We would encounter two more allies when we got off the bus.

***

When we arrived at the Visitors’ Center, my husband and I immediately disembarked the bus with our kids, and instinctively huddled together to discuss what had happened. During that time the driver got off to go to the restroom. In the midst of our deliberations, another family who was on the bus, consisting of a White woman, two kids and a Hispanic man, walked over to us. Unsure of their intentions as they approached, by that time on the defensive, we were poised to quickly retort if necessary.

I felt my shoulders tense as they came closer. They introduced themselves and started to express how sorry they were for what had just happened to us. My shoulders came down a bit. They apologized again and went on to acknowledge how we were obviously targeted. They assured us they would file a formal complaint with the National Parks Service about the bus incident.

They lingered a bit to chat with us, but out of the corner of my eye I spotted the driver leaving the restroom and heading back to the bus. I walked towards her and called out, “Excuse me.” My husband turned in my direction to monitor the conversation. The couple departed to catch their next bus, but kept their eyes on me as if to bear witness to what was happening.

As I approached the bus driver I was thankful that this other family would file a formal complaint, and that they continued to watch my interaction. Many a cellphone camera, camcorder or observant onlooker has been the single thing that made all the difference in public displays of racism towards minorities. We would have witnesses, who unfortunately, because they weren’t Black like us, would likely be believed as telling the truth, instead of presumed to just be acting in solidarity with us.

The bus driver and I approached each other. By that time all the negative feelings of the experience bubbled to the surface; it was visceral. I could feel my heart pounding in response to how angry I felt.

When we were close enough to speak without yelling, with the limited composure I could muster, I asked, “Help me to understand why my entire family had to get up for one senior citizen to board?” I raised my index finger to place emphasis on the number one.

“I was just trying to ensure that the senior citizen could board with her walker,” the driver cooed in the most patronizing tone, while trying to pat my arm as if to console me.

I jerked my arm away from her.

“It’s illogical to vacate eight seats to accommodate one person,” I countered.

She had no response.

“Your actions smack of discrimination,” I continued.

At the mention of the word discrimination, she sucked her teeth, turned on her heels and started to walk away.

“I’m going to file a complaint,” I yelled, as I tried to throw the words at her back like a dagger.

“Sure you will,” she responded in a condescending tone.

***

Surviving as a minority in the U.S. is a bit of a math game, based on estimations and calculations. You estimate the risks and possible benefits of entering certain spaces before making a decision. I’d been reluctant to plan a trip for my family to Arizona or the Grand Canyon. There are countless anecdotes about racism in the National Parks system, and Arizona has a history of racist legislation. For example, Senate Bill 1070, which at the time of its passing in 2010 was ostensibly touted as the strickest anti-illegal immigration bill in the U.S., but instead was really a legalized vehicle for racial profiling by police. Or Arizona House Bill 2281, outlawing the teaching of ethnic courses in schools, devised to attempt to shut down a school district’s Mexican American Studies program. Despite all of these harbingers, the allure of showing our children the Grand Canyon prevailed — estimations and calculations.

In exchange for our bravery traveling to an environment where we knew there was the strong possibility we would be unwelcome, we were rewarded with spectacular views of the Grand Canyon, the feeling of accomplishment from walking the Cedar Ridge trail, some magical time together as a family — and, an all too familar dose of, discrimination and condescension. The bus driver’s “Sure you will” continued to prick at me long after my confrontation with her. Oh, the internal conflict and insidiousness of racism. It enters the most joyful of experiences, frays the edges, and lingers long after the offense is over.

Racism is insidious. Even with a lifetime of lived racist experiences, I’m still caught off guard every time it happens to me.

That night, while eating at a Mexican restaurant in Tusayan, a small town near the Grand Canyon, we talked to our kids about racism. We used our last night in Arizona to explain to them what happened to us, why it was wrong, and what they should do about it, should they experience something similar in the future.

As we walked back to our hotel, the couple who said they were going to file a complaint drove by. They stopped the car to say hello and assure us that they filed the complaint. They expressed their hope that the experience didn’t completely spoil our trip. We managed a half smile in response to their hopefulness, and thanked them for their active empathy, for seeing us and being allies.

By the time we filed our own complaint with the National Parks Service and Paul Revere Transportation, LLC, the company that manages the National Park Service’s bus drivers, they were already aware of our case from the other family’s complaint. As a result, instead of having to enter a lengthy explanatory process about what happened and convince others it was wrong, both the bus management company and the Superintendent of the Grand Canyon were poised to offer an apology, and evoked the word discrimination without provocation.

It’s been more than a year since our trip and the bus experience is still the dark undertone behind our memories of our vacation. But the small actions of three people amidst a bus of choke-throated others made a difference.

* * *

Shanna B. Tiayon, writes, speaks and trains on topics of wellbeing and the way we may infringe on the wellbeing of others. Her work has been published in Yes! magazine and Greater Good magazine. When she’s not working on wellbeing projects she’s homesteading with her family in the DC Metro area.

Editor: Sari Botton