Late on Saturday night, I came down with a horrible head cold. Luckily, living in the city, one can go to the store to purchase almost anything at any hour of the night, so I threw on my clothes and shoes and headed downstairs to the pharmacy to pick up some NyQuill.
I entered the pharmacy only to witness an alarming scene. A man was screaming, cursing, and threatening the cashier behind the counter. The words he was using were so violent, sexist, and cruel that I can’t repeat them here.
The people in the store all seemed stunned. After a few seconds, they started to file out the doors, leaving their purchases in shopping baskets on the floor.
I’m no superhero, but some forms of injustice call for immediate attention, and this was one of them. I was, however hesitant to say anything.
Because the man was black, and I am... well... about as white as they come.
This was also happening at such a racially charged time in the weekly news cycle, the non-guilty verdict in the Philando Castile case having been reported just days before. The man was becoming so violent though that I was concerned for the cashier’s safety, so I walked up behind him, raised my voice to his volume level and said, “Sir, leave this store right now, or I’m calling the police.”
He turned his anger away from the cashier and directed it toward me, backing me up against the edge of the escalator, saying a bunch of things about my mother (who he’s never met) and then started threatening to throw me down the stairs.
“I’m going to give you one more chance to leave the store, or I’m calling,” I responded.
No dice. Just more screaming, threats, and expletives.
I pulled out my phone, dialed 911 and calmly explained the situation to the dispatcher on the other end of the line, all the while the man still inches away from my face, threatening me in ear-shattering decibels.
Among the many things he was screaming about, he began to accuse me of being a racist who voted for Trump (which I didn’t) and said that white people like me were the problem with America.
But here’s what puzzled me.
The cashier who I stepped in to defend was also black.
How does that compute? Her skin color was the same as his.
I ended the call, calmly encouraged him to leave again, and told him that I didn’t want him to get arrested.
He finally succumbed to reason and left, calling me a bigot and a few other racial slurs on the way out.
Once he’d exited the store, I walked over to the cashier (who was now in tears) and said, “Are you okay? I’m so sorry you were talked to that way.” She said, “I’m sorry you were talked to that way, too. Thank you for saying something. I didn’t know what to do. No one would do anything and I was scared.”
I was heartbroken by the words that had been used by the man (toward her and I both) so I grabbed her hand and said, “I want you to know with all honesty that I didn’t step in because of that man’s skin color. I stepped in because you are human, and no one deserves to be treated that way.”
She responded, “I know. I know you didn’t do it because he was black.” I gave her my number in case the police had questions when they arrived, and went downstairs into the basement of the store where the medicine is. I grabbed the NyQuil (which ended up being on the house) and headed home.
One would think that I’d have journeyed back home, head held high, feeling proud of myself for having thwarted an act of mayhem in the world, but I didn’t feel good about it at all. In fact, I felt discouraged.
I felt awful for how the cashier was treated, sure, but I felt even worse for the man who was threatening her. I was sickened to think that the only reason he thought I’d intervened was because of his skin color.
I don’t blame him. Why wouldn’t he? With all that’s gone on in the history of our country, and especially these past couple of years regarding race, equality, and the treatment of people of color, I would have probably felt the very same way were I in his shoes.
We have such a long way to go, and the truth is, if you’re white like me, you (and I) have a lot of work to do. Generations of bigotry toward people of color can’t be undone with mere nods to equality. A trust has been violated. Fear has been used to control and to govern. Self preservation has blinded us to the injustices at work all around us. We have marred the conscience of our country — a land that’s supposed to offer opportunity, safety, and justice for all.
The world doesn’t work until it works for everyone, and it starts with those of us who have been given an upper hand simply because of our skin color. This is not about acts of pity, acquiescing to lesser beings. It’s about believing (really believing) that people of color, people of a different economic status or a different sexual orientation are our equals, and then acting in the world in accordance with that belief. People don’t need rescued. They need to be dignified for who and what they really are — beloved children of God.
I hope that I run into that man again. I’d like to hear his story, to listen, to understand more, and to get his advice on how I can behave in a more just and generous manner in the world.
If I do, hopefully he’s less violent this time. But even if he isn’t, I’ll still try to listen.