I didn’t enter the Whole Foods to become involved in social change, just to pick up the few things on my list. But I brought home so much more than groceries.
I’d seen the elderly African-American woman in the store before I approached her in the check out line. She’d been in the meat department.
She was lovely; her short braids were neat and beautifully beaded; she wore the perfect “Southern” pair of “bauble” earrings and a pink cardigan, despite the stifling summer heat outside.
Everything about her, except the baubles, reminded me of my nana. I might have even caught a whiff of Love’s Baby Soft cologne. But again, it could have been my imagination. I was a little nervous.
I approached her and asked, “May I have a moment of your time?” She was suspicious.
She answered in a way that let me know I could speak, but she wasn’t particularly happy about it. Maybe she thought I was selling something, taking a poll, or trying to get her to taste the latest puffed veggie snack or kombucha flavor.
I continued, gently. “Ma’am? I think I just saw you a few minutes ago at the meat counter?”
“Oh, no. I don’t think so. You must have me mistaken for someone else.” With that, she turned away as if that wrapped up all the time that she was willing to give me in a neat bow.
I was certain it was her. Certain. At the time, I’d been careful to note the soft pink cardigan and her braids. I proceeded cautiously.
“I believe you were passing two white men and you said, “Excuse me,” as you passed them with your cart?”
“Oh, yes. That was me.”
I said more quietly, “And one of the men called you a nasty name as you passed him?”
“Oh – no. I didn’t hear that.”
I Was Flustered
Well now I was flustered.
How could she not have heard? As she passed him, the refrigerator of a man clearly scoffed, “Bitch!” as she passed.
He didn’t mumble under his breath. There was no shame as the epithet slithered out of his mouth. He hissed with arrogance.
I continued. “I didn’t know what to do in the moment. I didn’t see what happened; the two of you were behind me until you passed. I know why he said it and I’m sure you do.”
“What I’d like to know is, how can I best be an ally for you? In a similar situation, how can I be an ally?”
I heard the collective years of Jim Crow and struggle wrapped in her answer, “Oh, honey. I don’t know what I would have done if I’d heard him. You can’t go changin’ anyone’s mind about things.”
“Yes. I understand, but it’s not acceptable for him to speak to anyone like that. I want people like him to know his behavior is not ok.”
“Actually…” she started.
I watched her lovely face soften before my eyes and her demeanor relax. A grin crept across her face as if she were a little girl again who was planning a prank. She slyly asked, “Are you a Democrat?”
“I am. And I vote and take my boys with me each time.”
“Then that’s what you can do.”
“Thank you. Thank you for your time. And it’s important that people know that they do have allies.”
“Well, thank you. Thank you very much.”
With that, we parted ways. I’d forgotten to even ask her name.
Why The Conversation Almost Never Happened
I finished my shopping, checked out, and loaded my groceries in the car. I sat in the car reflecting upon what just had happened. And knowing that it almost hadn’t.
Back in the meat department, when my mind was racing to respond, I recalled an article that I read (that I can no longer find) about wearing safety pins to let members of marginalized communities know that you are a “safe” place.
The article insisted that you’d better bring more than a safety pin. You better be totin’ a well thought out P.L.A.N. If you aren’t willing to physically help somebody – you aren’t a “safe place.” Don’t wear the safety pin – you haven’t thought it out and you’ll be getting in way over your head.
And I get it. Don’t wear a safety pin as a meaningless badge of liberalism to make yourself feel good. If you aren’t prepared to back it up with something helpful, don’t bother.
Then I felt shame and a little embarrassed. Maybe I wasn’t prepared to back up my intentions with anything helpful. What should I do? Was I prepared to get into a confrontation? I admit to having been physically intimidated. And I sure didn’t come with a plan of any kind. Maybe my intentions weren’t good enough.
I heard the whispers in my mind: You aren’t enough to change a deeply ingrained system of systemic racism. Your help isn’t enough to do anything but make a situation worse. Your liberal white guilt doesn’t matter to marginalized groups of people . These things may, unfortunately, be true.
But, in that moment, I didn’t care. I felt that I could reach out as one woman to another.
I decided to follow my heart – whether or not my intentions were good enough for anyone else. I decided to let her know she had an ally. My conversation with this woman almost didn’t happen because I felt shame; I’m thankful I overcame it.
How to Take Small Steps Toward Social Change
“Look at the things that you do in your everyday life and look for ways to infect those with progressive values…” Amy Ziering, Academy Award-nominated, and two-time Emmy Award-winning documentary filmmaker.
I may sometimes get tongue-tied; my efforts may not be enough to put a dent into systemic racism; and I may not always have a well thought out plan, but every act of kindness makes a difference. Every act of kindness impacts a real, live, person. Every act of kindness is worthwhile.
And the truth is, even though I had no plan – well thought out or otherwise – I probably would have hurled myself into the fray right there in the meat department had one started.
So I will always act in ways that I believe to be kind – whether others view them as good enough or not.
And I want to teach my children to do the same. I want them to follow the kindness of their hearts and to stand up for what is right and for those who have been marginalized for any reason. I want them to offer to sit with the child who is lonely. I’m trying to teach them to instinctively ask “how can I help?” every time they enter a room.
I always want to share with my boys about being true to themselves and being kind every chance they get. I don’t want them merely to tolerate other people. Instead, I want them to reach out, connect, and be kind to all people. I want them to stand up for anyone who needs a voice at any given moment. So I let them know that, as a family, we believe in and practice the following:
- We will make a special effort to show people that they have allies;
- We will make every effort to share kindness wherever and however we can;
- We will use our voices on social media to denounce that which is unacceptable and to promote that which is just;
- We will donate to causes that believe in the necessity of social justice just as we do;
- We will be vigilant about paying attention to situations that cross our path to insure that human rights are not violated;
- We will recognize and remind others that neo-nazis, racists, and other members of hate groups look just like us and those who we grew up with; we will never doubt that anyone in our daily life’s orbit could surprise us with hateful views.
I’ll Ask Anyway
Whenever somebody said something that ruffled my mother‘s feathers, she’d call them out on it.
For example, “What makes you say that?” was mom’s most common manner of calling people out.
You know what they say about hindsight… But next time, hopefully, I’ll be better prepared.
Next time, I’ll call him out, with a tinge of condescension, as my mother taught me. “Oh my goodness, what happened to make you use such language?” In my sweetest voice.
I’ll ask even though I know he probably won’t care. I’ll ask anyway so that maybe he’ll feel uncomfortable for a moment when he’s called out for his behavior. I’ll ask anyway giddy with the thought that he may not have an answer suitable for public disclosure.
I’ll ask anyway hoping that that I can watch him struggle to come up with something other than “She was black.”