As George Floyd’s murder has laid bare America’s persistent racism, I’ve been grappling with an incident closer to home.
I’m second-guessing complaining to an African American postal clerk about what I considered rude customer service.
Seeking to learn from the experience, I found a relevant article in The Guardian in which writer Kimberly Foster condemned “needlessly hassling people of color” over minor infractions. She lamented the stress of having to learn “the verbal and nonverbal norms” of a world different from their own and of having to “shape-shift” outside their community.
“Racist conditioning denies people of color the opportunity to be given the benefit of the doubt, so neither bad days nor social awkwardness are allowed,” she wrote. “Black people are unduly burdened by the social expectation that we always be on our ‘best’ behavior.”
Unfortunately, I did not extend the benefit of the doubt. I just got angry and reacted.
I was already annoyed with the Federal Center post office branch when I walked in last week. A month before, I felt scolded by a postal clerk there for mailing cash in a birthday card, for not differentiating between a letter and a package, and for not moving back behind the six-feet-away stripe after handing her my envelope. Agitated, I walked away before getting stamps I’d paid for. The next day I went back but was told nothing could be done because neither the clerk who had served me nor her supervisor were in.
Last week, with a package to mail, I brought along the receipt for the missing stamps. Another clerk reproved me about having waited a month, continuing even after I said I had returned the next day. I lost self-control and blurted out, “The people at this post office are rude.” She and a colleague standing nearby objected, and she refused to mail my package.
I complained about the denial of service on the post office’s online form and two days later received phone calls from the Loop customer care representative and the branch supervisor. By then I had calmed down and regretted that I hadn’t been more forbearing, especially during this time of heightened stress for all of us. I could have said, “Oh well, it was my fault in the first place for forgetting the stamps.”
A friend asked why skin color was not irrelevant in this situation. Would I have complained about similar treatment from a white person? Yes, but I’m wondering whether I was too quick in these interracial encounters to diagnose as an attitude what is cultural difference. As Foster noted in her article, the norms of black and white communities are different. Black people, however, cannot freely follow their own norms in white spaces without punishment.
“[T]he negotiation required to ensure that neither our words nor actions can be misinterpreted is exhausting,” Foster wrote. “Complete comfort is not possible when you must constantly second-guess your instincts. We will not know freedom until we can choose for ourselves how we show up in the world.”
If we grew up white in America, racism infected us, and unconscious racial bias continues to infect even those of us who decry racism. Being a liberal does not mean that a white person really understands about being black. Reexamining the post office experience through the viewpoint of Foster’s article, I wish I’d held my tongue.
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“I’ve never seen a president with less capacity for empathy. He doesn’t even try. It’s way outside his emotional comfort zone.”
— Andrew Polsky, political science professor at Hunter College, City University of New York, who studies presidential leadership traits