A Matter of Simple Justice: Confronting the Bigot
I took three young ladies to Wal-Mart tonight. While they wandered off to the music and make-up aisles, I went to the deli counter where I found some turkey pastrami. As the clerk took my order and pulled a slab of meat out of the cooler, a man joined me at the counter. He didn’t have to wait very long before another deli clerk stepped out of a back room to assist him, placed plastic gloves on his hands and politely asked for his order. What happened next was kind of surreal. The customer looked at him and said in a hateful tone, “I prefer to wait for her,” and nodded in the direction of the woman slicing my meat. I watched as the bi-racial young man quietly turned and headed back into the prep room.
My mind was racing as I processed it all very quickly. It wasn’t just the words that came out of this man’s mouth; it was also the look in his eye and his delivery, especially the tone of his voice. It made my blood boil. I’m not stupid – I knew what had just happened and I was furious. I had just witnessed this man make a discriminatory judgment, and as I sized him up, I made one of my own: “This guy looks big, tough and quite willing to kick my butt.” At another time or another place, I might not have said anything at all, but – emboldened perhaps by a recent fifty-something birthday – I decided to speak.
I turned to face him and said, “I’m curious. What was it you didn’t like about that young man?” I don’t know what I expected him to say. In the short time I had to think about anything before I opened my mouth, I only knew that I had to say something to call him out for his unbelievable behavior. I was looking for an opportunity to express my disgust at his racist attitude, and I fully expected a confrontation. I didn’t get the fight I was looking for. Instead, he had an unexpected but equally offensive response. He only hesitated a moment before saying, “I prefer a woman in the kitchen if you know what I mean.”
Nice. Cover your racism with sexism. I was so ticked about the former that I didn’t have a response for the latter, and besides, I’d made my point – I think. Upon reflection, I’m not sure he got my point and if he did, I think he truly believed that his response was a good cover. In my silence, he continued making excuses and mumbled something about not having seen that clerk before. I decided against saying anything more knowing that it would only deteriorate rapidly as my daughter and her two best friends (one of them bi-racial) would come upon the scene soon. I turned away angry as the female clerk – obviously as much a stranger to him as the other clerk – took his order. I would like to think that my facial expression spoke where words failed me.
On the ride home, anger turned to tears as I listened to three eighth-grade girls sing, laugh and talk in the seat behind me. These bright, beautiful girls are full of hope and optimism and yet they will all grow up combating sexism in both its overt and subtle forms. One of them will combat racism, too. It’s not fair, and I’m not doing enough to change things. As I look around to see how others are responding, I am reminded that this is such a universal issue. One writer contemplates bigotry within his family, another discusses bigotry in the workplace and one concerned blogger attracts a loose network of commentators all in search of answers.
A couple hours later I thought to call the store manager and tell him what prompt, courteous service his two deli employees had provided this evening. He promised that he would pass this on to his superiors who would in turn recognize the employees for the positive feedback provided by a customer. If this wayward man could set one negative chain of events in motion, I have the power to do the opposite and to put positive events in motion. I needed to believe that there was something I could do to counteract the pained look on that young man's face in the moment he faced an ugly, hateful ignorance.
I wish I had all the answers. I don’t know how to effectively confront bigotry, but tonight I took a lame step in the right direction. Tomorrow I will be more prepared.