When Is Racism Just Your Perception?

Remember the old saying, "How do you eat an elephant? One bite at a time"? When it comes to racism, we can change our relationship with this elephant, one response at a time.

I am not suggesting that victims, whose lives document the travesties and injustices of racism, could have, or should have done something differently. Nor am I attempting to address the elephant of institutional racism.

As a nation, we must continue, through the use of laws and education, to break the commitment to racism that was birthed in the cotton fields of early American wealth.

However, when it comes to common everyday encounters with racism, we can take a good, life-changing bite out of the everyday personal stress of racism by challenging our own default assumptions, and reactions to racism.

Of course, it is important to recognize racism and challenge it. It is equally important to challenge our default tendency to see racism where it may not exist.

A trip to the car wash this past weekend beautifully illustrates this:

I was third in line when the doors opened at 8am. Waiting behind the two other early birds at the register gave me time to find the perfect birthday card for the director of the play CITIZENthat I am rehearsing for.

When I reached the counter, I offered a cheery hello to the twenty-something cashier. Her hello back to me was not friendly, and her eye contact felt cold. I handed her the birthday card, along with my claim ticket for the wash.

As I was signing my debit card transaction, I remembered that I had no cash for a tip. Apologizing for any inconvenience, I asked the cashier to run my debit card again for the tip. She glared at me and said, "You could have just asked when you paid."

She was right. I usually ask. The other woman who normally sits behind the counter would probably have reminded me of this, based on our regular routine. But today, that kind-face woman was nowhere to be found.

The audible sigh that parted this girl's tight lips sounded like air being let out of a balloon, and her hot air caused me to take a step back. Had she behaved the same way with the two white people ahead of me? I had not been paying attention. But, this scenario and question was almost an exact replay of one of the vignettes depicting racism in CITIZEN.

I asked myself, "Is this girl a racist?" I caught myself readying to categorize her rudeness in the same racist context as the scene in the play. I stopped myself. If she is racist, then what? Was I going to argue with her about it?

I walked away from the counter slightly disturbed. In the waiting area, I opened my laptop, and tried to distract myself with email. But the rude encounter was still on my mind.

As an inner fitness trainer, I know the importance of inner congruency. Congruency is the lovely state of feeling aligned with one's self -- having our actions and feelings line up. In this moment, I wasn't feeling congruent.

I had learned years ago that I literally experience inner discomfort when I don't speak up about something that bothers me. This is one way the pain of being incongruent can enter the heart. It is one kind of pain when we allow another to stifle our voice. It is a different, more painful kind of hurt when we silence ourselves. I knew I needed to speak with the young girl to free myself of the uncomfortable feeling that disturbed my heart. Otherwise I would carry it home with me, keeping it around for who knows how long.

I approached the counter for a private chat with the girl. Before I opened my mouth I reminded myself of an inner fitness rule: Focus on my feelings and experience, instead of trying to make the other person wrong. Leading with a question always helps me follow this golden rule.

ME: I am curious. Did I do something to annoy you?

GIRL: (Sigh) No. I'm always like this in the morning. (Clearly, the girl knew exactly what I was talking about.) I've tried to work on it but this is just how I am.

ME: Well, that may be, but I spend a lot of money here...

GIRL: (Interrupting.) I know. I know. I'm working on it.

ME: ...and I have to tell you that the way you were to me felt personal. That doesn't feel good to me as a person or customer.

GIRL: (Girl looks up at me. Her exasperation, now, feels directed towards herself. She sighs again.) I am sorry. It wasn't personal. I didn't mean to make you feel bad. I know I have to change how I am.

Me: Well, thank you for saying so.

I left the counter feeling better. I had taken care of myself, without needing to verbally beat the girl up. I felt proud.

I do not know if this girl was racist, rude, or simply lacking business etiquette. My win was that I addressed my discomfort without leaping to default assumptions, or falling back on conditioning that would automatically label this encounter a racist moment.

Our minds get to choose how we see what we see. I believe in always taking the point of view that affirms our worth. This way, no matter how many rude, racist or otherwise unkind people we encounter, we do not have to let their bad behavior into our hearts.

The elephant of racism is one we will be chewing on for years to come. But we can change our default tendency to see everything through the lens of racism.

This is the point and lesson of the 70-minute play CITIZEN: An American Lyric, based on the book of poetry by Claudia Rankine, adapted for the stage by Stephen Sachs, and directed by Shirley Jo Finney: We each have power, even in the face of the elephant called racism, to choose new ways to respond.