The three of us put our cups of black coffee on the counter and reached into our pockets for our wallets. The check-out clerk paid no attention to any of us. He seemed to be staring at someone or something in the back of the store.
“We’re ready to pay,” one of us said, trying to get his attention.
The clerk kept looking at the back of the store. A few seconds went by before he told us why he was ignoring us.
“I’m watching that boy over there to make sure he don’t steal nothing,” the clerk said.
The three of us looked at the back of the store and realized the clerk was talking about Rob.
It was February, some years ago. Four of us writers were carpooling across Florida to a Reds spring training game against the Dodgers in Vero Beach. It took several hours to cross the state. We stopped at a place called Yeehaw Junction off Route 60 to use the restroom and get some coffee.
The three writers at the check-out counter were white, like the clerk. Rob is black. The clerk assumed that because the three of us were white like him, we would understand and agree with his attitudes and assumptions about Rob – that he was dishonest because of the color of his skin. Needed to be watched. Couldn’t be trusted. Too dangerous to let out of his sight.
We were stunned. Appalled. Angry.
What do you say to that?
“He’s with us,” one of us said sternly. “He’s our friend. We’re leaving.”
With that, we left our foam cups of coffee sitting on the counter, headed toward the door and told Rob to come with us.
Rob wanted to know why we were leaving so suddenly, and without any coffee. Back in the car, we told him what had happened. His response was eye-opening. He said stuff like that happened all the time.
I’ve been reminded of that moment while watching what’s going on in Ferguson, Mo., and so many other places.
And I can’t help but wonder …
What is it like to have people look at you every day and decide that because of one physical feature, you must be a bad person? A dangerous person? A worthless person? A person to be watched closely?
How does it feel when people label you dishonest even though they know nothing about you? What’s it like to live in a society where people reach conclusions about you based not upon your character but the color of your skin or some other feature?
How would you react to those daily reminders that you’re looked down upon because you’re not exactly like someone else? How angry would you get over the daily injustices and the insults? Would you be tempted to become bitter? Have moments when it’s tough to hold back the rage?
And what about the flip side?
If you’re like that clerk, aren’t you more inclined to do something unjust toward the person you mistrust? Doesn’t your judgment and fear affect how you treat others? Do you have an easier time dismissing entire groups of people as irrelevant or dangerous? Would you be more inclined to hurt them?
Shouldn’t we be asking these questions?
And then listening — really listening — to the answers?
We’ve heard so much noise lately about the injustice that permeates our world. A lot of pontificating and defending the status quo. So little listening.
I don’t know how we get beyond the hatred that’s in every society, other than that we steadfastly push back against it with love. And love means putting ourselves in the other person’s shoes so we can understand a little bit about what they’re experiencing. It means that we take seriously our inalienable responsibility to make sure that every person is treated as an equally beloved child of the same God.
Everyone. All the time.
It’s only when we make others’ injustice our own that we can change it. We have to take personally what’s happening to the other person.
And it starts with listening.
Listening to the voice of the clerk behind the register in Yeehaw Junction, the one that we hear every day in so many places and so many ways. Listening to the stories that the black writer has to tell, the ones that sound so familiar to so many others.
What happened that day in Yeehaw Junction happens everywhere, all the time. Do we listen and respond? Or do we just pay for the coffee, move on and leave everything the way it is?
Are we willing to really listen?