I stood at the checkout stand as the cashier quickly scanned the items I placed on the steadily moving conveyer belt. The next customer in line slowly rolled his shopping cart forward into what was apparently too close for the cashier’s comfort. She looked at him, moved his cart away, and snapped, “Can you move your cart back and stay there until I’m ready for you?” Then she looked at me and with disgust said, “Chinese people are so pushy.”
Whoa! Did she just say that? Not only did she say those words but she was now casually asking me to collude with her in this act of racial bias. The following exchange took place:
“Well, I’m part Asian and we’re not all pushy,” I calmly responded though my internal voice shouted at her. I purposefully didn’t want to shut down any possibilities of awareness to take place.
“What?” She was clearly flustered and caught off-guard.
“I am also Asian and we are not all pushy,” I repeated. Again, remember my internal voice is still elevated in shock and disbelief.
“Oh, that’s what my doctor told me.”
Confused, I replied, “Unfortunately, not all doctors know what they’re talking about.”
That was it. I saw nothing in her eyes, felt nothing in the energy coming from this cashier that indicated she registered (no pun intended) any learning from our exchange. In fact, her illogical response that somehow her doctor carried a certification in Chinese pushiness led me to believe she only felt embarrassed that I spoke to her comment.
Upon sharing this experience, I was later asked, “Were you offended? I mean, you’re not Chinese; you’re Japanese. So why did you feel like you had to say something?” Initially, I felt confused by the questions since addressing the ugliness of the cashier’s comment seemed the right thing to do. However, I realized there was a time when I wouldn’t have spoken up. I certainly would have spoken about it but not to it. If it didn’t offend me, someone in my family or social circle, or a passionate cause directly, I believed it wasn’t my fight. So I reflected more about my motivation to respond differently this time.
In truth, I didn’t feel offended at all. If I felt offended then I would have been making the situation all about me. It wasn’t about me at all. It wasn’t even about feeling offended on behalf of the man she referred to in the line. He never even heard the words she uttered to me. It was more about the cashier and her impact on the collective. Her comment was solely a reflection of her ignorance and disregard for the consequences of her words and beliefs on all who would interact with her. I struggled with her ease and assumption that her thoughts belonged in the public space of this store.
“Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere. We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly. “– Martin Luther King, Jr.
Though I have read this quote from Dr. King’s “Letter from a Birmingham Jail” many times, I believe it finally reached a place of internalized understanding in this moment. If I had remained silent, the injustice at that moment in time would have remained unchecked; therefore, it would have remained a threat for a different moment. No, I’m not Chinese yet I reached for how that man and I are similar. By connecting with what he and I had in common, we became a unified front, “an inescapable network of mutuality.” The message in Dr. King’s words is unmistakably clear; however, I self-righteously understood it pnly with my mind and not my heart.
I’m fully aware that my learning remains incomplete regarding the depth of this quote. The deepest part of me knows there is so much more. After all, could I have mentioned to a manager what had just taken place? Should I have? Was an opportunity for meaningful dialogue lost? Did I, in fact, still make it about me?
I extend an invitation to you to join me in reflecting about what this quote from “Letter from Birmingham Jail” means to you. How does it manifest in your day to day interactions? We live in a time that requires us to strengthen our connections that are “tied in a single garment of destiny.”