I hate when I say or do something racist. I hate even looking like a racist.
I hate it when I use a hurtful pronoun to describe a minority group.
Like the time I stood in a church lobby explaining to a Native American Mom that her son was invited to come on the church trip to a museum to see how “Pioneers and Indians used to live.”
“They’re called Native Americans,” she snapped back at me before turning to leave the church.
I still cringe when I remember myself trying to justify my comment by saying, “I have lots of Native American friends.”
I hate it when my ignorance shows through.
Like when I make a comment at a party that shows that part of my brain still connects being black to being poor.
And I hate when I freeze because I don’t know what to do when other white people say something racist.
Whenever it happens, I replay the scene over and over in my mind. My face still gets red with physical embarrassment. The words I wish I would have said come into my mind and roll around in my mouth like marbles, making it hard to talk to minorities for fear that I’ll hurt someone else in a flash encounter or strategic misfire.
Sometimes, I can crawl my way out of it, apologizing and then cashing in all the chips I have in the relationship in hopes they’ll give me a second chance. But sometimes it’s someone I’ve never seen before and I’ll probably never see again, leaving me without a chance to explain why I did what I did or to just apologize.
I was vividly reminded of the feeling last week as I sat in the frothy YWCA hot-tub. I watched as the lifeguard tried to explain the gym’s policy of No cotton in the hot-tub to two old Somali women wearing baggy t-shirts and long jersey skirts. It was clear they didn’t speak English. With the help of a younger Somali woman wearing YWCA-approved athletic wear, the lifeguard used a combination of hand motions and pointing to communicate that the cotton absorbs the chemicals from the pool and loose threads get stuck in the filter.
“Rules are rules,” said the white man next to me, loud enough for the Somali women to hear but not necessarily know that he was talking to them. He had purple bags under his eyes, balding white hair, and a scraggly grey beard that matched his back hair. “We’ve already changed enough rules in this country.”
He smiled at me as if my white skin was proof I was in agreement.
I froze. I wasn’t used to being pulled into this kind of audible racism.
I glanced around the hot-tub wondering if anyone was listening. There were usually a few ripped Latinos with Jesus tattoos and cursive letters who would scare off these kinds of comments, but the only non-whites in the pool were two black women sitting a few feet away, and they didn’t turn around. But based on the volume of his voice, they were probably trying to ignore him.
When I didn’t respond, he spoke a little louder. “This whole country is going to hell.”
I stared at him wondering if I should tell him off. I thought about reminding him that the banners on the outside of the building read “Empowering Women and Eliminating Racism.” I thought about telling him he should apply for a job at Fox News. But I didn’t want to cause a scene so I resorted to my coping mechanism of choice: sarcasm.
“Well, they better make some more room in hell because there’s a lot of us.” I smiled back hoping to diffuse the situation.
“Huh?” he said, not getting my joke.
The oldest Somali woman finally threw up her hands at the lifeguard, the way my mom used to do when I threw a temper tantrum. Then she shouted what I assumed was the Somali equivalent of “Fine, be that way” and marched into steam room.
The old man stood up, rubbed his hairy fat belly, and announced to the hot-tub: “Gimme, Gimme, Gimme. That’s what they’re always sayin’.” His thumb was pointing towards the steam room.
I looked at him in disbelief. My friend tells me she can’t go a week without someone shouting “Terrorist!” at her as she walks the downtown city sidewalks in her long African dress and floral headwrap.
“America suffers from Islamophobia,” she says. “And as a Somali American I, like so many Muslim Americans who live this Country, are constantly reminded that we don’t belong here because of our religion.”
But I still didn’t say anything. I just sat there silently angry that this bigoted old man had used these Somali women’s misunderstanding as an opportunity to piss in the pool with his ignorance. But more than that… I was angry he had made me look like a racist.
As the old man got out of the pool, I thought about turning to the two black women next to me and saying, “Excuse me, but I just want to say I don’t agree with that guy, I just didn’t want to make a scene.” But I imagined it would come out like when I told that Native American mother that I have a “lot of Native American friends.”
So I got out of the hot-tub and started swimming laps, ashamed that I had let this guy off without saying anything. And after two laps of berating myself for my own cowardice, I started thinking about what I should have said.
I was treading water in the deep end of the pool when the two old Somali women emerged from a cloud of steam, sweat stains permeating their cotton T-shirts. They walked to the entrance to the locker rooms and stopped for a moment, looking at the two doors before walking into the men’s room.
Despite my residual anger, I couldn’t help but smile. My mom told me one time she had gone swimming without her glasses and made the same mistake. A second later, I heard shouting and the two women burst through the door laughing hysterically.
I laughed along with them, happy to see that they were bumbling their way through America with a sense of humor.
When I got out of the pool, I saw the younger woman who had translated for them. She wasn’t laughing. She had heard the old man’s comments. She had watched the women go in the men’s bathroom. And as she walked by, I waved at her and smiled with as much compassion as my face could muster.
She glanced up. “Hey,” she said.
“Hey,” I said, relieved that she was at least willing to speak to me.
Driving home, the cycle started again: the embarrassment, the what I should have said’s.
I hate the thought of leaving it where we left it. I’m probably never going to see that Somali woman again or the two black women who overheard the whole thing.
But I hope they find this blog post, the way people do in the movies.
And if you do, this is what I want to say:
I’m sorry that I didn’t say anything to that racist old man in the pool. I froze up. I retreated to humor. It’s something I do when I’m out of ideas. If we become friends, you’ll probably see me do it a lot. Most my friends think it’s an annoying habit. In the hot tub, I didn’t want to make a scene. But maybe I should have. I’m still not really sure. If we ever meet I’d love your ideas on what you think I should do next time.
But for now, I’m sorry and I hope you’ll forgive me.
This post originally appeared on The Salt Collective.