Then She Said It, and I Knew Something Had Changed

It was the most mundane of Saturday morning chores. I was standing in line at the service desk of the department store waiting to return a blouse. At the front of the line, a customer needed a price check on a pair of pants, and the lone service rep, a tall, elegant lady with an ample Afro, dispatched another employee to the pants department to research the situation. I smiled at the woman in front of me in what I thought was silent communion and slipped into the half-reverie/half-stupor of waiting in line. This was gonna take awaiting-in-line-jpeg while.

If her phone hadn’t rung just then, the service rep might have called the next person in line, who happened to be the woman in front of me. But it did. Someone was phoning in about a lost pair of eyeglasses. The service rep rummaged through one drawer and another, but found nothing, so she gave the caller the bad news and hung up. The other employee returned from the price check and the pants transaction was completed. At last the rep called the woman in front of me.

The woman stepped to the service desk, and it was clear that she had spent the last few minutes not in stupor or reverie, but in a state of escalating agitation. She addressed the rep, first muttering and then raising her voice so everyone could hear. “Unprofessional,” she said loudly.

The service rep picked up the phone and whispered into it. “Mike, this woman is angry with me. I can’t wait on her. Can you come out?”

Mike appeared instantly from a nearby office, but that only seemed to make the woman angrier. “DID YOU HEAR WHAT SHE SAID ABOUT ME?” she asked, addressing everyone in earshot.

And then she looked the service rep in the eye and said it.

“NIGLET.”

I felt the people on line behind me freeze. The service rep’s face contorted in hurt and rage. “What did you just say?”

In the next moment, I heard myself saying, “That’s not okay. Bringing race into it is never okay.”

A woman behind me chimed in soothingly, “We don’t need that kind of talk here.”

Mike gently but firmly enfolded the service rep in his arms and led her to a back room, saying, “Take a few minutes.”

He returned to the service desk and silently finished the woman’s transaction, while she sputtered, “I didn’t say what you think I said. I didn’t say . . .” She turned to Mike for confirmation. “Now I feel bad. I don’t care what these people think,” she motioned to the rest of us. “But she thought I said something and I didn’t say what she thought I said.”

But we had all heard exactly what she said.

Mike finished her transaction without a word, and she left. I finished mine, and went off to do some browsing. And thinking.

I had never heard anyone use that word, or any variation of it, in so aggressive and public a way.

Now, I’m a white middle-class Jewish woman who lives in the largely liberal greater New York area, and I understand that my relatively privileged life renders me a poor accountant of the racism that continues to haunt the United States in 2016. And I fully accept the idea that we’re none of us untouched by implicit bias—the covert racism so ingrained that it goes unrecognized while it does its ugly work. (If you’re not familiar with the concept, just think about whether you’ve ever wanted to lock your car door at the sight of a black youth in a hoodie. Of course, if you’ve been that black youth wearing a hoodie, you know exactly what implicit bias means.)

There was nothing implicit or covert about what happened on that Saturday morning: one woman insulted another with a racist slur. I know I can’t compare that momentary exchange to the potentially life-threatening, or at least lifelong, effects of bias in law enforcement, education, jobs, housing, and the judicial system.

But it was jarring nonetheless. I tried to work out why, and I can’t help thinking it’s more than the fact that as a white, middle class woman, I don’t face this sort of thing every day. No, I think it’s because I believed—like so many—that despite the racism that still pervades our society in both implicit and explicit ways, we’ve made some progress in the last half-century. And one of the areas in which we’ve made progress (or so I thought) is that we’ve developed a sort of societal consensus on how to speak to one another. Racial insults of this kind are not supposed to happen. They’re supposed to be history—discussion fodder for my kid’s high school English class when they study To Kill a Mockingbird.

Lately it feels like this consensus is coming apart. True, the exchange in the department store amounted to just one tiny incident, not a scientific sampling. But it seems to mirror other incidents that I’ve read about or seen on TV and social media. It seems like some people who never quite accepted the consensus have emerged from underground to proclaim their right to express their bigotry as if it were a long-lost, cherished freedom. Were they just waiting for a little encouragement from a TV huckster cum demagogue?

I find a little comfort in the fact that others waiting in line with me were as shocked and offended as I was. And that people from all corners of society are equally offended—and are saying so in public. But I’m worried. I hope this is not the unraveling of our painstakingly wrought, always fragile, not-yet-finished societal journey toward equality for all.

When the most mundane of Saturday morning chores becomes a racial confrontation, I wonder.

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