Racism at the Registers: a True Tale
The clock strikes 9:35, marking the eighty-fifth sleepy minute of the lone cashier’s workday on a particularly sluggish Thursday morning. With a flurry of color, a whirr of vibrant energy, a large Nepalese family enters the sleepy neighborhood’s co-operative grocery store. The young cashier appears grateful to have some interaction to break the doldrums. With smiles all around, she points them this way and that, laughing with the group when it is obvious she has misheard what product they were asking for. The language barrier forded with humor. Checking out at the register with three different orders, the group struggles with the card machines. But the cashier knows– the PIN pad’s ebt procedures require a lot of button pushing, and are very different from other nearby stores. So with a smile, she tells them how to navigate the different screens, indicating buttons when verbal communication flounders.
When everyone’s items are bagged and paid for, she cheerily waves and bids everyone a good morning– smiling abound. A typically pleasant transaction.
Then, an elderly white couple approach from where they had been waiting– a good ten feet away near the lotions and soaps. Eyes flat and stern, the wife thrusts her arm forward stiffly; in her hand she holds a neatly folded stack of sanitizing wipes.
“Since you were dealing with those people, please wipe off your hands and arms and the countertop.”
Taken aback, the cashier is at a loss for words, and takes the wipes hesitantly from the woman’s outstretched hand. Fumbling to find any words at all, she sees the man and woman patiently waiting to for her to “clean” everything, making it obvious they have no intention of beginning their transaction until she proceeds. In those brief seconds, a river of questions splash through the cashier’s head: Did she really just say what I think she said? She’s asking me to sanitize myself… because of the Nepali customers? Implying they’re dirty? That they’ve dirtied me?! Is this really happening? What do I say/do to let it be known this is not ok– that I do not condone this??? Mouth in a mask-like, soulless smile, the cashier vaguely wipes her hands with the moist cloths and quickly throws them into the trash beneath the counter. Her responses are automatic: “Do-you-prefer-paper-or-plastic-here-is-your-receipt-havva-nice-day-bye.”
As the customers leave, the shock begins to wear off. The cashier’s blood pressure rises. She feels altogether too warm, too closed-in behind the register. She has so many words vying for opportunity to pour out– many in very unprofessional terms– but the old couple are already out the door, another customer has walked up and placed her items on the counter. But–! No choice now but to stretch her lips into a grin and do her job.
This story is a more elegantly composed, descriptively-worded version of my morning. Including a direct quote of what this woman said to me. Perhaps it doesn’t seem what some would call “that bad”… but her flat, flat eyes and the tone of her voice, the way I could just hear her disgust…
I was so pissed at myself for my inability to react in that moment. I was blindsided, wholly and completely. And then I had no idea what to say. Just wanted them very much out of the store. Take your shit and get out. But then I thought of a million different things I wanted to have said. To have said to stand against that kind of behavior. Against that ignorance and meanness. And I was so MAD that I failed 100% at doing anything about it.
As opening manager, I had been the only one at the registers. Ten minutes later, when my first cashier of the day came in for her shift I was still reeling with emotional and moral fallout. I put her at the main register and transferred my drawer to the secondary one. It was the first break in a the trickle of customers since the incident, and I took that moment to turn around and violently kick the outside of the register station a couple of times. When my coworker got me to tell her an overview of what happened, she asked a key question, “I wonder what [our HR manager] would have done?”
Our hiring manager is a woman whose kindness and intelligence I have much faith in. A fellow alumnus of Hollins University (back when it was still Hollins College), and ever the mother-hen-like figure to many of the younger employees, I knew I had to ask her advice. And finally some good luck! She walked in the store not five minutes later, as I was walking away from the front to take my 15.
When I asked her if I could chat with her for a few minutes, she must have seen something on my face, or heard something in my tone of voice, because she lead me immediately to the empty meeting room and closed the door behind us. When I told her what had happened, and how I had felt, and failed to react, she understood completely. And she gave me examples of some things I “could have said” which would have been professional, firm, and perfect for standing up to the situation. For example, “Ma’am, while I agree it is wise to keep a sanitary workstation, you can see that everything here is quite clean. We treat ALL of our customers equally here, and with respect. I cannot help you with your transaction today, but I would be glad to call a coworker from the back of the store to ring you up at another register if you prefer.”
But, she admitted, she would likely have acted similarly to me in the immediate moment of the incident, out of a sheer desire to get them out of the store. I was much relieved, and felt empowered, when she assured me that as long as we are courteous, any employee has the ability and the right to stand up to that kind of behavior. “And if the customers left their things at the register, if they stormed out and never came back… it would be ok.” And in the moment of the incident, I did have some fear– I was afraid of making the couple angry, afraid of causing a bigger scene, unsure if there would be backlash against me. While that shouldn’t have stopped me… it was definitely good good GOOD to hear our HR manager solidly shore up acting against that kind of ignorant and cruel behavior.
So for the rest of my shift, I enacted an emotional followup. I made a point to smile extra-wide, extra-often, to put more enthusiasm into my voice than usual, to laugh often, to radiate general niceness, kindness, and happiness towards every customer I dealt with. In hopes of putting out positive energy, making up for what that older couple were sucking out of the world.
In close, I’d like to share a bit from a TED talk I happened to watch today. It was perfectly suited for what I wound up taking away from the whole debacle.
“If you can manage to experience three positive emotions for every one negative emotion over the course of an hour, a day, a week, you dramatically improve your health and your ability to successfully tackle any problem you’re facing.” — Jane McGonigal’s TED talk: The Game that can Give You 10 Extra Years of Life