i am just another white woman walking in his shop.
just another tourist on vacation with my blonde hair and my cute as a button daughter. i’m picking up sandals and trying to decide if i want to spend too much money on shoes.
earlier i’d heard a man say it behind me and he’s hit the nail on the head. this tiny lakeside town along the peninsula in northern michigan. the shops are tucked into fishing shanties. the ice cream flows. the trinkets are pricey. wineries wait with open doors.
it’s all so quaint.
i’m in his shop.
there are five or six people crammed into the small space so we can hear every word any one of us says. a woman is purchasing sandals and he says this:
“now ben carson, i tell you – when i look at him, i don’t see black. he knows you’ve got to work hard for what you got.”
he keeps talking.
“he makes obama look bad.” the mention of the president’s name gets nods and murmurs of agreement. “you see these blacks in the projects expect a handout. they aren’t doing them any favors. obama.”
he says it like a swear word.
“he’s a joke. you can take them out of the ghetto, but they still think everything is going to be handed to them.”
the sandals in my hand have become as heavy as the anchors holding down all the pricey boats docked in this privileged, white town.
he goes on.
“everybody i know agrees with me. well – except my mother-in-law. and nobody likes her.”
more laughter and the message is clear.
shut your mouth if you got something to say.
the woman checking out thanks him for the sandals and he thanks her for her business. and then i see that not buying these stupid, expensive sandals is the only power i have.
my little girl looks up at me.
“are you buying anything, mom?”
he can’t know who i am. i look like somebody he can trust. i fit his profile.
he doesn’t know that i grew up in detroit. that i live there still. that my neighbors on both sides are black. that they keep up their yard better than we do and that they are watching my house while i’m on this very vacation.
he doesn’t know that their kids eat dinner at my table.
because everyone looks like him, he thinks he can say whatever he wants to. he thinks he’s safe. he doesn’t know the people he’s talking about. he doesn’t know a lot.
“no eleanor. no, i’m not going to buy these shoes.”
i’m talking clear and i’m talking loud. i’m using the same voice i use when i’ve stood at the pulpit and preached to churches. it’s a small space. there’s just five or six of us. everyone is going to hear every word.
“i was, but now i’m not going to buy anything in this store. i’ve had to listen to a racist conversation in this place of business. in fact, it’s been going on the whole time we’ve been in here. and because of the racism that i’ve experienced in this place, i’m not spending a dime.”
and then there is total silence.
pin drop heavy quiet.
i walk back over to the sandal display and put the shoes down. i take my daughter’s hand and we leave in the silence. a few steps out i hear their hesitant laughter and i don’t care at all.
and now i’m on a different vacation. i’m in a different town. i look around and see nary a black person. i feel guilty about vacating to a beautiful place. but it isn’t wrong to want to see beauty.
the world is wrong.
i see people defend racism online and it’s such a thin veneer over the truth. a racist bully owns a shop and has enough money and history to live a privileged life. he worked hard. he owns a lot. he’s not sharing.
maybe he’s just like you. maybe i’m just like him. i don’t know.
but what i do know is that i’ll never laugh along. i’ll never nod my head quiet when there’s something that should be said.
even on vacation.