It’s always a surprise when you’re unprepared. You’re always unprepared. Did that really just happen? Did he really just say that?
Just this month it happened when you were shopping in your favorite box chain, an office supply store, where the paper products alone do you in, not to mention: the bright folders, sticky notes, dozens of ways to organize all those slippery ideas and pesky commitments, rubber bands, paper clips (zebra striped), staples, pencils, highlighters, notebooks, and pens. Pens…
You lose yourself.
The 1980s hits shower down on you. The florescent lights, the bad feng shui, the impersonal, corporate stamp on everything—none of it bothers you. How could you notice such things when you’re pondering extra fine, fine, medium and bold? Blue or black?
Time stops. You’re breathing only through your mouth and you don’t even realize it. Disoriented and satisfied, you drift to the cash register. The young man totaling your purchase calls you ma’am. How are you? Did you find everything OK? Would you like this all in one bag? No matter what your reply, he says, “Of course. You’re the boss.”
You’re eight years old again with your markers and your crayons and paper and soon you will go home to the ironing board that is your desk and you will do your best to create some pretty important stuff.
But this visit is not like any previous visits.
As the associate handed you your receipt, another associate walked in holding a sack of fast food. “Hey, Nacho!” He called to the associate in front of you. His tone was not jovial. He was not smiling. He was cocky and on his way to the employee break room to eat. The young man that had been helping you laughs. It was not a laugh filled with ease. It was a strained laugh. It was loud.
The associate who helped you was brown-skinned. (If you had to guess, you’d say Latino, but you prefer to use the names of countries, instead of grouping whole cultures into oversimplified buckets of identification—Latino, Asian, Native American. You prefer to be specific: Bolivian, Tibetan, Oneida.)
The associate who returned from the drive-thru was white-skinned. (Perhaps of German or Irish descent; you don’t know. Rarely do you ever hear white-skinned people speaking of their ethnicity. You wonder if this is the blessing and curse of being the dominant culture/the culture that dominates.)
Did that really happen? Did the white guy say, “Hey, Nacho!” to the brown guy?
And why did the brown guy respond by laughing, mimicking the fierceness of tone with
which he was addressed? And as a woman of color, coming down off her office supply shopping high, how was I supposed to respond?
How easy in those moments to play the monkey—hear no, speak no, see no…
Maybe it was a joke? Who was I to say anything?
This is what went through my head as I walked to the parking lot. By the time I got to my car, I was ashamed and outraged. As a human being, if I witness an act of cruelty and don’t respond, am I really being fully human? After the short ride home, I called the store and spoke to the manager. “I’m deeply offended by what I witnessed today,” I began. “I feel incredibly disrespected and I’m trusting that you will do your best to ensure it never happens again.”
He thanked me for bringing it to his attention and apologized, many times and in many different ways.