Three young black men entered the store and began to look around. The white clerk watched them come in, peering over the top of her bifocals. At first she froze. Then she followed. There were plenty of other customers in the store, but there was something suspicious about these three to her.
So she followed them, up one aisle, down another, across the whole store. As the young men turned to leave, one of them angrily shoved something off the front counter and faced the clerk, “Was it our color or our language that offended you?”
This incident happened just last week in a flea market near my rural Pennsylvania hometown and I cannot get it out of my mind. It’s not a unique story. I have multiple friends with multiple stories of being followed and there are few things more degrading or humiliating or angering.
The racist woman is the one who told the story, seeing nothing wrong with her actions. In fact, I’m sure she felt justified when the one man shoved the item off the counter.
At times it’s hard for me to believe that people like this exist. And then I am reminded of a justice system in our country (in 2014!) that allows white men to shoot and kill black teens because their music is too loud or they are wearing hoodies. I am reminded of a justice system that sentences two black women to life in prison for stealing $11 and puts a black woman on trial for a possible 60 year prison sentence for firing a warning shot into a wall when her husband was abusing her.
When our own “justice” system sets this kind of precedent and sends the message that black bodies are not worth as much as white bodies, that young black men are to be feared and shot at, that skin color is a crime that can bring a life sentence, then we have store clerks in Hagerstown who feel justified in following black customers. Then we have white men annoyed with loud hip hop music shooting and killing black teens. Then we have racial profiling laws in Arizona. Then we have kids growing up in a culture where racism is not only learned from mom and dad but is reiterated and indeed validated systemically.
My boyfriend and I often rage over these things and feel hopeless and depressed in the face of it all. It’s hard not to hate people who are blatantly racist and full of ignorance. It’s hard not to want revenge. It’s hard to even hear stories.
I don’t think it’s wrong to be enraged and want to throw things and scream and cry. We should have a level of righteous anger at racism and hate. But I also know that living in that state will eat away at your soul.
I wish I had some kind of perfect answer. Somehow saying, “Love them anyway.” And, “They are still God’s children.” makes me want to scoff and spit in my own face. I guess in those moments I try to think on the people doing good– the Cesar Chavezs and the Mother Tereseas and the Nelson Mandelas and Martin Luther Kings and Oscar Romeros and Dorothy Days and all those working for peace and justice and love even though it’s so damn hard.
I try to think about the people who can love those who are literally throwing stones at them and those who react with nonviolence because they know that violence only breeds more violence and hate only breeds more hate.
And until the day when our justice system is actually just and until the day when following people in stores is an abomination instead of the norm we will continue to rage and seek true justice and cling to the words of Mandela that
“No one is born hating another person because of the color of [their] skin, or background, or religion. People must learn to hate, and if they can learn to hate, they can be taught to love, for love comes more naturally to the human heart than the opposite.”
And maybe this is all easier for me to say as a white woman of privilege. And maybe it seems like a fantasy in the face of reality. But if I don’t have love and light and hope to cling to then I have nothing. And if I don’t let my righteous anger burn towards restorative justice then it will just eat away at my soul and without my soul I am truly hopeless.