I did not know what to say, but something amazing happened
I was waiting in line behind a small woman with black hair at a pharmacy in San Francisco when a man came in behind me. He was tall and wore all black clothing covered in patches with aggressive messages. He was literally wearing his anger on his sleeve. After a minute or so he started shuffling in place, huffing, and making it clear to everyone else in line that he was unhappy. Then he said it: “It’s always the fucking Asians.” Clearly referencing the small woman at the front of the line that had been at the counter for several minutes. Startled by his brazen remark, I was stunned into silence. Everyone in line looked dead ahead and tried to pretend they didn’t hear him. I couldn’t help but remember that show “What Would You Do?” where they set up scenarios just like this one to see if anyone will stand up to racism or bullying in public. Why didn’t I say anything? Was I really just like everyone in that show that tucks their head and fails to defend another person just to avoid conflict? I decided that if he said anything else, I would speak up. Although I had no idea what I would actually say.
Then he said it again: “Not to make it about race, but it’s always the fucking Asians.” So I immediately turned to him and opened my mouth, waiting to see what would come out.
“Well if it’s not about race, then don’t make it about race.” I said to him simply. My heart was pumping fast.
“Okay fine, it is about race because it’s always the fucking Asians causing the problem.” He replied. “What do you care anyway? You’re white!” He said.
“Well…” I said. Once again, curious to see what would actually come out of my mouth.”I wouldn’t let someone to say that about you either.”
“Well that’s very nice.” He said sarcastically.
Then the most amazing thing happened. The woman in the front of the line turned around and said, “I’m not Asian. I’m Puerto Rican, and proud of it.” She scowled at him and then just turned back to her business. Everyone else in line continued to pretend like they couldn’t hear anything and stared straight ahead. His eyes popped. “Well fuck me, I’m Salvadorian. So I’m Latino too. Shit, now I’m an asshole.” From that moment he was transformed into the most deferential, polite and patient patron in the store. “No you first…Please and thank you…yes ma’am.” The change was so dramatic that I started looking for the hidden cameras. Did that really just happen? I was on a cloud leaving the pharmacy. It was a natural high that was exhilarating. I was hardly a hero for muttering something back to this man, but deciding to swallow fear and awkwardness in order to stand up for empathy felt like I was living according to my truest self, and that was well worth it. I have no idea how it would have turned out if the woman had in fact been Asian, or if this momentary revelation did in fact transform him in any way beyond the present scenario in the store. But I know for a fact that I don’t want to waste any more opportunities to speak up for others and for compassion.