We had placed our order. After paying, I noticed, up on the corner shelf behind the cash register a brand of green tea that I had never tried. I asked the woman if I could have a cup of that tea, she smiled and nodded. I payed her and then set about waiting for it to be made. Joe went and got us a table in the brightly lit court. We are at a hospital in downtown Toronto. I had just had a several hour iron infusion in which they had trouble finding a vein and, though they were wonderfully kind, I ended up being poked several times before they were able to get a vein. I was tired. I was glad of the moment to just sit and anticipate tea.
While sitting there a man, with long grey hair pulled back into a pony tail, arrived with a dolly full of deliveries for the vendor. I paid no heed to him or the conversation that he was having with the woman who had served me. It got a bit loud at one point, but I was waiting for tea, I was anticipating tea, I pushed their conversation aside. I just wanted to be centred and quiet. They stopped speaking. He was waiting for some paperwork to be signed. He saw the kettle boil and he barked at the woman, "Get this poor man his tea for God's sake." She started at his tone, dropped the pen, and began making me tea. I spoke up, also startled by his tone, saying, "I'm in no rush for my tea, do what you need to do." He shook his head disgustedly and she continued making my tea.
He walked from where he was around the corner to me. He leaned down and in a stage whisper said, "You are just a customer here, you should try working for these people. I should get paid extra just for trying to understand them. They can't even speak the language properly! We shouldn't let them in if they can't converse." All through this I recognized the deep racism in his attitude and it goes against everything I believe in. Yes, in placing the order we had to go over it a couple of times. But we were asking for the food to be extra hot, it's not uncommon when asking for something like that to have to go over it a couple of times. No, I didn't feel frustrated by her ability with English or with my ability to communicate simply what I wanted. She was pleasant. I was pleasant. It was no big deal.
But here, this guy just assumes that I'm racist, just assumes that I will agree with him, he feels free to include me in his racist mindset.
And do you know what I did?
I was so startled. I was so taken aback. I was lost for words. I am fully prepared to deal with ableism when it rears it's head, but that didn't translate into dealing with racism. I was so angered by that. I know what these attitudes do to people. I know she heard him speak to me. I know she heard my silence.
My tacit agreement.
I got my tea. I went over to Joe. I immediately told him what happened. I forgot entirely the ordeal of needles being poked into my skin, over and over again, and dealt with the fact that I had been silent in the face of racist bigotry. That I hadn't done anything. I was so angry at myself.
When we were done our lunch, which had been prepared as hot and spicy as we had requested, I rolled back over to the woman. I didn't want to apologize for being silent. There is no apology for being silent. So I simply said, "It was really, really, good, exactly like we wanted it." She smiled, she said that she was glad we liked it. She said it like she cared that we liked it, that she was glad she got the order right, that she wants to provide a good service to people.
She said it like a person who deserves others to speak up in the face of prejudice.
I'm still sorry she didn't find that in me.