She tilted her head and looked over the top of her glasses and said, “You know I’m joking right?”
Mary (not her real name) is a bright 27 year old follower of Jesus. I know Mary through Jesus Loves Kalamazoo and those are the last words she heard as she left the post office last week deeply embarrassed and offended. Mary is African American and those last words came from the lips of the Caucasian postal clerk at the end of a transaction filled with judgment and racism.
Because I know Mary a bit, when I heard about her experience in the post office, I asked her to share the experience with me. I wanted to know what the impact of that experience was like on her. So today she sat down with me and shared her story. I’m sharing it with you, not because it is the most horrific event known to man, but because I believe it tells the story of so many and highlights what is still so in our culture today.
At this point, many of you are going to be tempted to quit reading. I get that. There’s also a part of me that doesn’t want to know this goes on still.
It is September of 2014 and Mary goes into the post office to pick up a package, from the VA, for her mom. Her mom has all the proper paper work filled out so Mary can pick it up on her behalf. But as she engages the postal worker at the window Mary is harassed, belittled, profiled, accused of being a junkie and a drug dealer by the clerk.
Loudly, so loud every one in the room can hear, the clerk tells her that often the VA will send narcotics through the mail and that she is wondering if Mary is going to go sell them. Mary, of course, is horrified and offended. She is embarrassed. “You just don’t talk to people that way,” Mary tells me.
After proclaiming she needs her supervisor’s approval, the worker leaves Mary standing at the window feeling just slightly awkward. When she returns with the package, it is with an equally as loud, “I guess you can go get high now” that she hands it to Mary.
Maybe it’s because of the color of Mary’s skin? Maybe it’s because Mary is young (a whole two decades younger than me!)? Maybe it’s the combination of the two? I think we all know there are white folks selling drugs and doing drugs. I think we also know there are old peeps who also sell and do drugs. And if we all know that, then why profile Mary?
I don’t know if it was the look on her face as Mary turned to leave, but the clerk – probably realizing she has crossed a line, finishes their interaction with “you know I’m joking, right?” What I can say is this, the only time I have ever said that is when I KNOW I have crossed the line, said something unacceptable, and want to cover it up and make sure I don’t get into trouble.
When I asked Mary what the impact of that exchange was on her, I could tell it was difficult for her to identify it. She felt humiliated and embarrassed – like her dignity was being stripped away. She didn’t make eye contact with anyone else in the crowded lobby as she got out of there as fast as she could. At the same time, however, she also said it is what she has always experienced.
Mary went on to tell me about being ignored by white teachers when asking for help, of being snubbed by white students at school and how even being on the same sports teams didn’t make the playing field level.
In Galatians 3:8 Paul tells us, “there is no longer Jew or Gentile, slave or free, male and female. For you are all one…” If that is our spiritual reality, I wonder how long it will be before we live that way?
I don’t know how many times I have been to the post office – often looking like I have been dragged through the gutter. Never has anyone assumed I was doing drugs or selling drugs. And, if they did, nobody has ever said as much out loud to me. And certainly not in a public space like the post office.
Because of the way I look, speak and dress, nobody has ever profiled me for anything except for being the amazing upstanding citizen I am! (ok, I see that look!) Whether you want to believe it or not, because of the way I look, because I was born to white parents, I live in a position of white, male privilege. And in order for me to live in privilege, that means somebody doesn’t get to – that’s the nature of privilege, some get to have it and others don’t.
In this instance, Mary doesn’t. Mary doesn’t get to go to the post office and assume it is a safe place for her to do business. Mary doesn’t get to believe that others will just assume the best of her. Mary doesn’t get to have the privilege of being able to go in and out of places, like the post office, without wondering if she will once again be harassed, belittled, profiled and accused.
Not unless something deep changes in our nation. My hope is that the church will lead the way and that we will learn to love the way Jesus loved.