As I often do on weekends, I got up Saturday to get to the Trader Joe’s grocery store at 8 AM when it opens. (Otherwise, the lines traverse the back of the store and back up to the door, requiring a second person to do the shopping while you stand in line.) The cashiers at the location I frequent are typically quite friendly, engaging me in conversation as we complete the transaction. It’s often a nice start to my day.
Once in a while, I will get a cashier who speaks to me only as necessary and instead focuses the deeper conversation with the cashier at the next register. That was my experience this weekend. When I approached her, she was pleasant enough and greeted me somewhat tentatively. She seemed shocked when I was friendly to her, and I couldn’t help wondering if my pale skin made her uncomfortable. She appeared quite comfortable speaking to the young man next to her, whose skin was closer in color. I realize that she might have a crush on him and that might have colored her actions. Yet as I wished her a great day and went about my day, I couldn’t help wonder if she was actually surprised that this 40-something white woman was kind to her and didn’t care at all that we had different skin, hair, backgrounds, and experiences.
My heart ached as I thought about people being unkind to her and disrespecting her in ways that have her uneasy around those who look like them. I still struggle with that when I see young, dark-skinned people who remind me of the teenager who assaulted me in 2014 and caused injuries I might never fully recover from–or the teenagers who pushed me out of a subway car and, after I got back in, rapped about the white b*tch dressed exactly as I was that day. I wish I didn’t respond that way, and I’m glad that I can consciously separate my thoughts from my actions. Nevertheless, I see how we all tense up around each other. I hope that will eventually end.
How might it end? It begins with much smaller actions than we often think. It’s not just about passing laws and attending diversity training. It’s not solely about punishing those who perpetrate hate crimes or exceed their authority by using excessive force. It’s not someone else’s job. It starts with each of us.
Notice if you are the first to exclude someone because they look different from you and your friends. Consider whether your assumptions are true. Test those assumptions by having a conversation with someone who seems to have nothing in common with you. What you might learn is that it is not the other who is keeping you from his or her community. Sometimes, we are the first to exclude. Then, we wonder why the other has put up his or her own walls. We think we are making ourselves safe, but we are generally pretty safe with each other.
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Nance L. Schick, Esq. is a New York City attorney and mediator who focuses on keeping people out of court and building their conflict resolution skills, especially in business and employment disputes. Her holistic, integrative approach to conflict resolution draws from her experience as a crime victim, human resources supervisor, minor league sports agent, plaintiff, and trial attorney. She is a 2001 graduate of the State University of New York Buffalo Law School trained in Alternative Dispute Resolution (ADR) by the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC). She is also creator of the Third Ear Conflict Resolution process, author of DIY Conflict Resolution: Seven Choices and Five Actions of a Master, and an award-winning entrepreneur, who has been acknowledged by the U.S. Chamber of Commerce (2015 Blue Ribbon Small Business), Enterprising Women Magazine (Honorable Mention, 2014 Woman of the Year awards), and Urban Rebound NY/Count Me In (Finalist, 2013 Pitch Competition).