On Racism, Nearby

I’ve been hesitating to even blog about everything that’s happening right now – the Ferguson, Missouri situation has reminded me that no matter how well-intentioned, I’ll always be white. As history has shown, that’s clearly not a bad thing, but it does mean that while I’d love to chime in and offer my take on the situation, I shouldn’t. It’s not that I can’t still be a part of the push against class warfare and racism – it’s just that I’ll never truly understand what it’s like to be anything but white.

That’s not to say that I can’t be an ally, that I can’t be someone who pushes for reform and truth and justice and tolerance and all of those wonderful, idealistic things I thought everyone believed in. The hard truth is that people don’t believe in those things. You learn the rose-colored worldview of tolerance and peace and then you hit the real world and it’s filled with ignorance and hate.

I was at 7-11 yesterday, buying iced coffee before I headed out to babysit, when a short, grandfatherly looking white man cut me in line holding two Cokes. He got up to the cashier, a nice woman who’d greeted me cheerfully when I walked in, and when he was told that it was going to be like $2.89, he flipped out. He asked how much one Coke was, because he’d been under the impression that they were 2 for $2.22. The cashier told him that they were no longer on sale, at which point he began yelling for her to come to the back and look. He turned around, nearly hitting me.

I don’t usually get scared, but something about him coming two inches from full body contact unnerved me. Apparently, the 7-11 people had put Pepsi on sale instead of Coke, but forgotten to take down the advertisements. I get that – it’s annoying. If you want to sell products and offer a discount, properly advertise it. She apologized for the confusion, admitting that they’d made a mistake.

They got back to the counter and he continued yelling (I’m not exaggerating here – the entire store could hear) about how this is what is wrong with America, greed and blah blah, and then he paused and told the cashier, “You wouldn’t know. You’re just visiting here.” She insisted, with a lovely accent, that she was an American too.

That’s when he lost it. He started going off about Judgement Day and how God would know that she was lying about being an American. (I almost cut in and asked him if God was American, but I didn’t and I’m glad.) He yelled at the cashier, and to her credit, she handled it beautifully. When he got to the part where he was yelling about how his mother would know that she wasn’t an American, she calmly told him that she didn’t care what his mother thought.

It was horrible. She was clearly an African immigrant, and I don’t care whether she was a citizen or here on a visa, she’s working and she’s nice and she’s obviously someone who is stronger than she looks. He was clearly the worst sort of American. After he left, I told her that I was sorry that she’d had to deal with someone so rude and that I hoped that her customers from then on were pleasant to deal with. The woman behind me offered her support as well. I would have been in tears – I was impressed with how calm she was.

It’s 2014. Any illusions of a white America should have been dashed years ago – it’s over, or rather, it never was going to be a thing. At some point, these people are going to have to embrace the fact that diversity is here to stay, whether they like it or not. I can’t fathom how anyone could be so cruel to someone based on their skin color, or their accent, or the fact that they work at a 7-11.

I’m still appalled. I wish I’d spoken up. Better yet, I wish the boyfriend had been there. He’s not always the most forward-thinking human, but I know that he wouldn’t have stood for this kind of hate. He’d have had words with the man.

It’s not just 7-11. It’s Facebook. I live in a very educated bubble. Most of my friends are white like me, have at least a college education, and are pretty progressive and liberal-leaning. (Not all. Most.) The posts that I’ve seen lately about Ferguson, Missouri and racism have been about being a white ally, class warfare and the threats to the white majority stronghold of our economy, and so on.

Boyfriend comes from a different place. His bubble is different. I love skimming his news feed to see how different they are. He probably thinks I’m trying to glean information about his lady friends, but honestly, it’s a remarkable sociological difference, whether it’s based on location, education level, or career path, and I’m fascinated by it. That and the lady friends.

Last week, a Marine friend of his posted something about the Ferguson, Missouri situation, including the riots, with a very inappropriate caption. I was appalled that an active member of our military would be allowed to post something like this – but it wasn’t just the post, it was the comments on it that aggravated me.

A plump, blond, middle-aged white woman commented on the post and said something about how upset she was about “these savages” and how “we bring our Lord to them and they act like animals” and so on and so forth. Our Lord? The same God of White America that the 7-11 dude worships? What are these people smoking?

I did a terrible job at describing the post and the comments, but I’m trying to illustrate how frustrating it has been for me to see that not only is racism alive and well, but it still wears the well-meaning mask of religion. I wanted to believe that while racism still existed, it at least had the decency to hide deep in a person’s soul and not be broadcasted around on social media and spit at cashiers in convenience stores. I wanted to believe that so badly, and clung to that hope. I was wrong.

I may scoff at the well-intentioned ally posts and the never-ending parade of sociological examinations of cross-sections of our society, but today I am grateful for them. I’m glad that I get to sit and click and read them – I’m glad they’re being published and that people are reading them, and sharing them, and spreading a message that shouldn’t be new to some people but clearly is. I need to do more — we’ll talk about hashtag activism at a later point. And the next time I see a man yelling at a woman because of her accent and the color of her skin, I’ll give him a piece of my mind. At the very least, a little social sanctioning may give him pause.

We can do better. We need to do better.

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One thought on “On Racism, Nearby

  1. Your encounter at the 7-11 was a direct reminder to a scene from the Michael Douglas film, “Falling Down”. Good movie with a message. Do yourself a favor and rent it. Douglas plays a recently laid off defense engineer who finds himself over-qualified for most jobs. Couple that stress with the personal stresses of a divorce and problems with visitation of his only child. He wanders L.A. ecountering one misadventure after another. One incident is when he enters a convenience store operated by an Asian fellow. Douglas doesn’t like the price of a can of Pepsi and gets all wound up with racial talk and ends up smashing the place up. Obviously he’s gone off the deep end, all the while the police are trying to find him. Sometimes it’s less about the event and more about the event being a trigger to vent other rage.
    It’s not going to get any easier. As our population increases so will the tension and social stress.

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