I had an interesting encounter this week at the grocery store. It was early afternoon and I was in line at the customer service desk to exchange a pie I had purchased 20 minutes prior. I got behind the few people already in line and waited my turn. While I waited, I heard an old man behind me as he began to talk to what I assumed were people he knew. After a few seconds, I turned casually to see who was with him and noticed three young Hispanic women who did not seem to know him. He spoke in an unnecessarily loud voice, making it near impossible not to hear what he was saying.
“You girls must be glad the Republicans took back the house, the blacks and Mexicans will get jobs again,” the man said.
I perked up and replayed that sentence in my mind in an attempt to grasp the reality that an elderly man had actually said those words to three young strangers in a grocery store. The girls chuckled softly out of what I presumed to be politeness. I don’t think they understood what he said.
“It’s good, we might not need welfare for your people anymore, the way it should be!” he continued.
My heart sped up and I was in disbelief that I was hearing what I was hearing. I couldn’t not say anything. I turned around and looked the man in the eyes.
“That’s a terrible thing to say to someone, and very disrespectful, sir.”
I tried to keep my cool. I was mostly successful at being calm but inwardly I was seething with rage.
He seemed taken aback by my standing up to him and replied, “This is America and I can say what I want!”
I replied, “Yes, but you should be careful with your words, especially when you don’t know who you’re talking to.”
He stepped up closer to me and said, “I have a right to say what I want, missy!”
I quickly realized he was relentless and my words likely would not change his attitude, but I responded anyway.
“Yes, and with that comes personal responsibility and spouting off your hateful views to random women at the grocery store isn’t very responsible.” This did not help anything.
“No, it’s a woman’s responsibility to do more than have babies and collect welfare like they all do nowadays! You should have to work for your money! Welfare for people who are lazy and just want to come here and have babies isn’t right! Welfare is evil!”
Is this really happening right now? Is there a camera recording this? There has to be a camera, right? I thought to myself as I stood there in disbelief and confusion.
I considered ignoring him. But far too often in my life I choose to keep my mouth shut to avoid conflict or believing “nothing I say will matter anyway.” And that’s not always true. I straightened my spine and took a breath before articulating a response.
“If it wasn’t for welfare, I wouldn’t be where I am today. I had to get free school lunches as a kid and my mom had to resort to food stamps when times were hard.”
“You work?” he interrupted snidely.
“Yes, I work, not that that is your business to ask,” I retorted.
“I’m a man! I’ll ask you whatever I want! And back in my day, people worked their way to success and that’s how it should be!” He stepped an inch closer and I stepped three inches back before ending the conversation with these words:
“You are entitled to believe that. I simply think you should be careful what you say in public because it is obvious history and progress are not on your side and you could really hurt someone’s feelings.”
I turned toward the three Hispanic women who smiled at me but did not seem to know what was going on. Before the man could say any more, I gave up my place in line and walked away. I am almost certain he was shouting things at me but I tuned him out and did not look back. I was upset enough.
This was about more than politics. This was about human decency and respect. This was about taking a stand against someone else’s ignorance and hate.
But most importantly, this was a lesson for me, though it was not immediately obvious and didn’t hit me until I was on my way home for the day.
You see, I would never want anyone to look at me the way I looked at that man. I am certain there have been occasions whether in personal interactions or over social media platforms that I have overstepped boundaries or unfairly argued a point that painted me out as being someone I am not, or highlighted the parts of myself that shouldn’t be highlighted, but rather, changed, and I would hope others would have grace with me in those instances as I tried to have with the man at the grocery store.
I never want to be associated with those in whatever party I choose to ascribe to who are so extreme to the point of being intentionally or ignorantly hurtful to others. I know that not all Republicans think or act the way this man did but sometimes, even subtly, it’s hard to separate and see the difference between the misguided extremists and everybody else.
People with attitudes and opinions like this exist all over the country. Being from the South, I once assumed most of the racism and bigotry I had encountered was distinctly “Southern” or a by-product of living below the Mason-Dixon and unless I escaped it, and any other state in or around the Bible belt, I would be stuck with it. Then I moved to Southern California five years ago and quickly realized how wrong I was. These attitudes exist all over the United States and is not confined to any one particular geographical location. It can’t be escaped. This does not make it excusable or warrant a pardon for people like the old man I encountered, but it proves I am not alone in my rage towards these modes of thinking.
The take away is that it can be confronted responsibly and with tact, which if done successfully, can be considered a victory of its own. Old men like the one behind me in line the other day are not worth hours of anger and bickering. That doesn’t change them, and maybe nothing can. But speaking up responsibly and not sinking down onto the same level of hate and arrogance is sometimes the only victory that matters or counts when faced with the blatant bigotry of others, if only for the sake of those who may be standing behind you, who either don’t have a voice and can’t defend themselves, or don’t know how to ask for help from those of us who can.
I am thankful to this man for teaching me these things, and thankful for whatever it was deep down inside of my spirit that had the courage to speak up where my voice was needed — even if it cost me my place in line to return an apple pie. It’s a small price to pay and ultimately, one I would be willing to pay as many times as needed in defense of what I believe to be true about those who are less fortunate and are just trying to put food on their table.