Racism Among Us

It was yesterday, June 3rd. I walk into a Starbucks at around 6:30 PM and stand behind the man in line in front of me. He struck me as an unusual character to be in Starbucks— an elderly black veteran— not the typical member of the millennial crowd that I’m used to. He struck up conversation with the barista and evidently, they were both Marines.

“Once a marine, always a marine,” said the older veteran to the younger. The barista smiled and agreed.

It was my turn to order and as I did so, I noticed another person in line behind me: a middle-aged white woman maintaining a straight posture with the aid of her cane. The veteran returned to add an extra preference to his order and stood beside the woman in line. I overheard a friendly conversation between the two of them and that made me smile.

All was good… it seemed.I went to wait by the coffee mugs. The older woman made her way slowly over, finishing up her conversation with the departing marine. He left and we stood alone, just the two of us. I cherished the silence but I knew it was coming— have you ever watched a movie where you can just tell that someone is about to die? Maybe two characters meet in a silent corridor and the music stalls; or maybe someone innocently smiles, feeling life is well and the camera shows a full-body shot where one ordinarily wouldn’t belong.

There are similar social cues where you can just feel it subconsciously. This was one of them… as I stood there, I heard the timpani rumble louder and LOUDER until—

“You know what I first thought when I saw you out of the corner of my eye?” she asked. I turned towards her, but before I could say a damn thing, “come here, come sit down next to me.”

She patted the chair right next to her. I glanced around, weighing my options and the possibilities. For a moment I was hesitant, but what was she going to do? She was crippled and we were in public. Naturally, I sat down.

“When I saw you I thought, ‘Oh my God, he’s so bright!'” Oh no. I remember thinking that something about that was off. She must mean this metaphorically… right?

She leaned toward me, “You know, you just don’t see many like you anymore do you? All mixed together nowadays.” Shit. She’s serious. “… You’re gorgeous; like an angel!”

I shifted uncomfortably in my seat. I never had suspected that people like this would exist, especially here in Southern California. She wasn’t even that old! She looked to be in her fifties with strong, curly brown hair and a sharper face.

“I… uh, I guess I’ll take that as a compliment?” I genuinely didn’t know what to say or do. Nobody could hear us. I felt disgusted with myself and with her, but I just wanted to get my coffee and leave with as little conflict as possible.

She asked about my parents. Were they as white as me? I said no (my dad is really tan and my birth-mom is mixed). Goddamn, this was uncomfortable.

She continued, “That’s a surprise! You’re just so… pure.” That was it. This woman was secretly a Nazi in disguise. She wanted to compliment me, but she just made me feel sick. How could she be the same woman who smiled and talked so kindly with the black veteran when she still believed that being white meant to be “pure?”

There was a lull, the one that I had been waiting for. I nervously looked over toward the barista, hoping that she would have my coffee so I could leave. What should I do? I thought to myself. Should I just grab the coffee and run? Should I try to talk some sense into her?

It didn’t matter, she went on, “You just don’t see people this beautiful anymore. Scandinavians and, you know, those European types.” She gestured to the others in Starbucks, “They’re all just too… mixed.”

I hoped, please, oh please just step back a little. “Well, it’s not all that great. It just means we get sunburned more,” I said. It didn’t land. She gave a faint chuckle and we sat in silence. The barista was working hard, but those drinks just weren’t coming.

Before she could say something else uncomfortable, I asked her how her day was going. I didn’t care, obviously. I didn’t even listen to a word she said, I just needed for her to talk about something else. Then, in the middle of her rant about her day, my coffee arrived.

“CHRIS!” the barista called.

I grabbed my drinks and tried to exit but the woman was in my way. Fortunately, her story was coming to an end and her drink came up right after mine.

“Have a good day!” she said to the barista.

“Thanks!” I said, pushing past her, pretending that was for me. Finally, I was out. I didn’t want anything to do with her and I certainly wouldn’t open the door for her if I could avoid it.

However, as I was exiting, a family with a stroller were struggling to come in. I held the door open and exchanged smiles. And then, just as the last member of the family entered, the woman was there. She smiled kindly as she walked toward and through the door. That’s when it hit me.

If I had closed the door, the headline would not be, “APOLOGETIC WHITE MAN FIGHTS WHITE SUPREMACY THE ONLY WAY HE KNOWS HOW.” It would read, “ASSHOLE MILLENNIAL REFUSES TO HELP CRIPPLED WOMAN WITH THE DOOR.”

Look, I’m not looking for brownie points here. I know I could’ve done WAY more and that closing the door on her would mean less than nothing. An hour later, after hearing my retelling of this story, my girlfriend asked why I didn’t argue with the woman. She knows I love to argue, after all. I explained something that I hadn’t really been able to consciously articulate earlier on.

This woman was middle-aged. She lives here in Southern California and was probably born during the Civil Rights movement. She could talk with a black veteran with a smile on her face but still held onto these beliefs of white supremacy. I knew from my experiences with my parents and other older people that at some point, most people aren’t willing to change. They think they understand the world and their minds seem to close. This woman has lived through the start of the internet, the Civil Rights movement, a black president and still believes there is something lesser about people of darker color. No young white man in a coffee shop with two minutes on his hand is going to change how she feels.

But that doesn’t mean that I don’t think people shouldn’t try to have open minds or give up on changing. We can if we choose to, no matter our age or backgrounds. There is simply a time and place in which we can learn and I think that blogs, books, TED talks, and other forms of education are where that happens. So here I am, telling you this. It isn’t because I’m proud of myself or anything of the like. It is to show that our beliefs can become outdated and wrong. We can change. We can learn. We can grow… but we must be willing to hear people out and hear more from “the other side,” whoever that may be.

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