A casually dressed young man came to my register at the grocery store. He looked down, occasionally flashing me a sullen, almost angry look as he offered terse responses to my attempt at conversation. Empath that I am, I absorbed his negativity and I found myself feeling angry, too, and my responses toward him became curter, as well.
A colleague came over to bag the items, he recognized the young man and greeted him with a big smile. “Hi there, young man,” he boomed. “It’s good to see you again! How have you been?”
The young fellow looked up and became a different person. The tension left his face and he offered a big, wonderful smile at the man who was glad to see him. I found myself warming to him and we began to respond more positively toward each other.
I forgot to mention that the young man was black and so was my colleague. And just in case you didn’t know it before now… I’m an old white guy.
Not long ago, George Floyd, a black man from Minnesota was killed by a white police officer while other officers watched and did nothing. The event sparked protests throughout the nation. Some of those protests evolved into violent riots.
Racism is the current topic of conversation, surpassing even the COVID pandemic. Once again, the arguments erupt about who is racist and who isn’t, and who is a victim and who is an oppressor. On the one hand, I’m angered and tired of the mostly stupid protestations of white people. I’m shocked at how easily we lapse into talking about anything except the violent death of a black man at the hands of a public servant who swore to protect others.
Back to the young Black man who came through my line. For one moment, my colleague made him feel at home, and I wondered… how often does this person get to feel safe?
How would it feel to walk into a grocery store where people watched to make sure I didn’t steal anything? How would it feel for people to be angry and hostile at me on sight? How would it feel to get into my car and worry that I might be stopped, beaten, and arrested by the police? I’m sure I’d feel pretty angry, but I’d try to keep it tamped down to avoid trouble. Is that how this man felt as he checked out his groceries at my register?
Repressed feelings tend to come out at some point, and anger can be explosive.
Now, consider a certain segment of the population, say African Americans, whose ancestors were slaves, whose brothers and sisters are in prison, who are often poorer than white people. Suppose they are told constantly to be quiet and not cause any trouble?
It might be hard to comply. I’m pretty sure I couldn’t.
I’m overwhelmed at these recent events. I have nothing I can say or do that will help. I’m just a clerk at the grocery store. I can’t change the minds of racists. I probably can’t protect people from being mistreated. But I’ll be as kind and helpful as I can to everyone I meet. And the next time that young man comes through my line, I will focus all my good will and respect toward him.