“I’m glad they hired an American,” the woman checking out at the CVS said to me. To my right and left were my friends and colleagues working other registers. That customer had no idea where I was from or where they were from. I was the only white cashier that day.
“What is wrong?” I asked.
“He swore at me and called me slow,” my colleague said. I had served that customer 100s of times. He was rude, but he had never talked to me that way. I was white and my colleague was not.
“I told her she should pick someone else. I ask her why she couldn’t pick a lighter man, so they could have lighter babies,” my friend said to me.
“Is he white?” a friend asked when I was talking about a professor that I was struggling with because his course was unorganized. That was her second question. Her first was the professor’s name.
Above are several times when I had to think about race publicly.
- What would you do in each scenario?
- Have you experienced similar situations?
- How would you approach a situation like these in the future?
The first one, in that CVS, haunts me. Why? Because I was silent. I was so surprised by the comment that I didn’t know what to say. I have often wished that I could go back and tell that woman I was not American. Just to see her reaction. I wish I had complemented my friends for their hard work in front of that woman. I wish I had said something, almost anything, to let that women know I disagreed. But wishing doesn’t change anything.
Every encounter since that one in CVS I’ve said something. My response has never been perfect. Questions and comments about race always surprise me. They shouldn’t, but they do. I review these types of interactions many times after they are done. Most of my responses were weak, but with each one I get better at saying racism is wrong. With each one, I get better saying that I do not believe people should be judged based on the color of their skin.
George Floyd was murdered by a cop. He died of asphyxia because a cop knelt on his neck and prevented him from breathing. George Floyd was not the first black person killed by cops. His murder was brutal but not unlike many previous violent acts against people of color in the US. After George Floyd’s murder, people took to the streets in large numbers. Cities across the US are protesting.
We cannot know the future. But, perhaps, we can make sure that when today becomes history we are not still fighting the exact same fight. Today we find ourselves listing the names of the dead, the hurt, the pushed down because of their skin color. And though the list is too long to complete, many of us have not considered acting until now.
Why is George Floyd’s death the tipping point? Why are we acting now? Why not before? We may never know.
We may feel guilt for inaction in the past. That guilt will remain. But, let’s not feel guilty years from today because of now. Guilt does not fix problems. Actions fix problems.
The most important question each of us must ask ourselves today is: What am I going to do from this point on?
Protesting is one thing. It’s important but it will not, alone, change the status quo. We must do more.
Here are some things I’m already doing/starting. Join me. Or, make your own plan.
- Protest or donate to bail out funds and organizations supporting and organizing protests.
- Donate to organizations that fight for justice and equality.
- Be an advocate, get involved in politics beyond voting. I can influence politics and our country’s laws in many ways beyond casting my vote (though that’s a good way to start).
- Hold politicians accountable.
- Hold friends and acquaintances accountable.
- Reflect on my interactions with people who are different from me. Identify my biases. Make and enact a plan to be better. I will make mistakes. I will get better if I continue to push myself to see my shortcomings.
- When I see racism call it out. Stand up for others. Take the hit. Have the hard conversation.
- Review the systems I am part of like work and school. Is there bias? How can it be eliminated? Take action to eliminate the biases I see.
- Push myself to learn from those who are different from me. Diversity is what makes all of us stronger. Seek it out.
- Realize it is not good enough to be kind. Learn how to be just. Strive to be empathetic. I can not fully understand another person, but I can challenge myself to hear them and see them to the best of my ability.