I’m not easily rattled. I’m not an introvert, nor am I shy. But I was aghast at what I was witnessing, leaving me completely bereft of words.
The woman behind me in line at the 99 Cents Store seemed friendly enough. At least she was towards me. She wondered aloud how long the prices would stay at a reasonable 99 cents and whether or not she should run back to the produce section and grab one more bag of potatoes. She asked about the large container of organic lettuce I had placed on the conveyer belt and if I thought organic really was better. “After all,” she informed me, “even though it’s organic, did you know that they still spray the crops with pesticides?”
I nodded and smiled as she continued on while the woman ahead of me paid the cashier with a $50 bill. She was draped in a dark garment and wore a white veil (hijab) over her head. She could have been muslim, but because I live next door to a city that hosts the second largest immigrant Iraqi population in the United States, she could have been from any one of several immigrant groups, including Iraqi Christian.
I was only half-paying attention, but when the woman behind me suddenly grew impatient, I realized that the cashier had left the register.
“What in the world is taking so long?” she asked. Shrugging my shoulders, I simply told her that I thought the cashier had gone to change out a large bill. And that’s when she went off.
“Well what does she think she’s doing?” she asked loudly. “I don’t have all day!” The cashier returned within just a couple of minutes but the woman to my left was relentless. “Why did you leave your register?” she demanded.
The cashier responded calmly, telling her that she needed to get some change.
“Well, who does she think she is anyway? This is a grocery store, not her personal bank! Tell her this is America and next time she needs to bring the right amount of money. Stupid foreigner.”
I was shocked at her brazenness. For one split second, I even thought I might be on an episode of “What Would You Do?”, a hidden camera show hosted by John Quiñones, presenting ethical dilemmas to unsuspecting individuals.
I searched the face of the cashier and then the woman to my right to see if they were as offended as I certainly would be at such a tirade. Their casual conversation, spoken in Arabic, suddenly turned silent. The smile was gone from the Iraqi woman’s lips and her head and eyes shot downward.
Because it. just. sends. me. when I witness injustice, I wanted desperately to refute the rude and offensive comments. But I figured no matter what I said to the woman behind me; point out how rude she was or how she might very well have trouble navigating in a foreign country or at the very least, ask her if she’d ever heard of the Golden Rule ~ she wasn’t going to feel any differently about this foreigner taking up her time. More importantly, sadly, nothing I contributed would have changed her attitude.
So I did what I thought would change something…or rather someone. I took two steps to my right so that I was almost shoulder to shoulder with the Iraqi woman. Then, while she waited for her items to be bagged, I reached out to her the way I would to one of my daughters, or a friend, or a sister who was hurting. I patted her ever so gently and rubbed circles on her back . It was a gesture I hoped would cross all language barriers and say, “I’m so sorry. And, maybe that woman is having a bad day, but that didn’t give her the right to unleash her anger onto you. And, please forgive her ignorance. And, Jesus loves you…” It was hope wrapped in prayer over the course of a matter of seconds.
She looked up momentarily and our eyes met. In broken English she said, “Thank you.” I knew then that I had chosen the better thing ~ to reach out with one small act of kindness rather than try to “fix” mean words.
The woman to my left? She wouldn’t remember me, even if I had tried to correct her. Because people who demand their own way by trampling over someone else will always feel justified.
When I reached the safety of my car, I cried. I had witnessed a comparatively “minor” injustice considering all of the heinous atrocities different ethnic groups have suffered over the history of mankind. And I realize I’m “preaching to the choir here”. Yet, at the risk of stating the obvious, any form of viewing someone as “other than = less than”, is wrong, and something Jesus came to abolish.
I’m curious. Have you ever encountered racism first-hand, either as a victim or a witness? What did you do or say, if anything?