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Tuesday, June 14, 2016

A man walks into a coffee shop...

This weekend my family spent a few days in the city which is something that only happens once or twice a year. One of the city's features that my children comment on during these urban interludes are the beggars on the street. We don't have street people where we live and my children react cautiously when someone asks for money as we stroll along the sidewalk.

On Sunday afternoon we went for lunch at a waterfront fast food restaurant. We had gotten our food and were tucking in to some sandwiches after a tour of the provincial art gallery when a ruckus erupted at the service counter behind us.

I did not see what happened but I heard a man, who would likely be pigeonholed into the category of street person, raise his voice in complaint. He said the server had thrown the change across the counter at him. She claimed that she dropped it by mistake-- I don't know what happened and it soon became irrelevant. Rather than apologize for the accident, the staff got into a heated argument with the man with one staff member eventually yelling, “Get the fuck out of my store. I am calling the police.”

The fire was lit and the man continued to loudly accuse the staff of showing him no respect. Another staff member, with a cooler head, asked the man to leave and added that there were children in the restaurant (mine) and that the man was scaring them. The man pointed out that he was not the one swearing, true; but he was yelling and my kids were definitely nervous. Despite the calm and rational voice of this particular staff member, the fire once lit took a while to burn out.

After a few minutes the man finally left and the staff regrouped behind the counter. The manager, the one who had swore at the man, came back out from what one assumes was the office and was heard saying, “I don't have time for this.” Then business resumed as usual with the manager apologizing to the remaining customers for the incident-- but not apologizing for his own hostile behaviour which exacerbated the situation.

Everyone was incredulous at the man's outburst. They sided with and supported the staff. There was not a single comment heard which considered the man's perspective.

When we left the restaurant I asked my kids what they thought about it all. They had been scared by the confrontation and they repeated the types of sentiments echoed by all the customers after the man's departure.

So I asked them, “What about the man? How do you think he felt? Imagine that every place you went people didn't want to look at you. That when you bought something in a store the clerk threw the change at you because they didn't want to touch you. Imagine that every day is like that. Imagine there is no place that you can go that people will treat you with respect. That is what that man is living. And when you live that way, every little incident piles up and weighs you down so that what seems like a little thing to us onlookers becomes a huge, intolerable offence.”

They began to consider what I was saying but I don't know if they would think of such an incident differently in the future; if they would try to see the outsiders point of view.

These incidences, the so called microaggressions that have often been cited in terms of race relations in North America, are a daily reality for many people. The million slights and put downs foment frustration and incredulity that the world can treat people this way and not recognize the harm done.

I read about an example of microagression recently on facebook; an incident at a local store where a woman of colour casually mentioned to the clerk that she was just getting off work and that she taught at a nearby school. The clerk's next comment was to ask the woman if she was a Teacher's Assistant to which the woman replied that she was a teacher which elicited a 'Wow' from the clerk.

People constantly face this everyday devaluing of their worth and questioning of their position in the world. The teacher in her post was quick to point out that being a TA is an admirable profession but the assumption that a woman of colour could not be a teacher, which was clearly subconsciously (or consciously) what the clerk thought, was a hard wall to run into at the end of the day.

I am a white woman and have never experience racism directed at me but I have felt the sting and judgement of others for being poor, for being from a 'broken home', and occassionally for being female. And I have seen countless examples of people being disrespectful to those among us whose lives hover on the edges of society rather than nestled against her soft, exceedingly white, bosom.

When I was a teenager one of my first real jobs was at a fast food restaurant in Edmonton. Edmonton is a cold place. It's not for the faint hearted or the unhoused.

There was a man who came to my restaurant every evening. He ordered coffee; nothing else. He sometimes asked for the advertised free refill. He wore big headphones back in the day when that was not cool. The headphone wires hung freely from his coat searching for a nonexistent walkman.

This man was homeless, or at the very least housing challenged. Headphone man was not exactly clean. He kept to himself and he didn't talk much.

After a few shifts of observing his behaviour I started buying him lunch and then sitting with him to eat during my break. I don't remember talking to him about anything although I am sure we did. I don't even remember his name although I must have known it at the time. I remember his beard, his headphones, his quiet.

My lunch dates with headphone man lasted for a couple of months but then the hammer came down. I was instructed by my manager not to give headphone man food. I explained that I had paid for it, I was not giving him my free lunch which was part of the benefits offered to workers at this particular establishment. That made no difference. The manager was clear, they did not want headphone man in the store. He wasn't good for business.

I told headphone man I could not eat with him anymore or I'd lose my job and he stopped coming. Shortly after that I quit my job, not directly because of the headphone man incident but in some ways it was related. I looked forward to lunch with headphone man. He made me feel like I mattered because he mattered to me. Without him there was very little to look forward to at work.

What's more he was an outsider. He wasn't part of the machine. He was not one of the worker drones that thought the company was the most important thing in the world. There would be no fascination with company training videos which instilled a cult like following in employees for headphone man. He'd utilize the machine but would never become part of it.

Headphone man wanted a warm place to sit and drink coffee. A small request of the universe, of civilization. His money was the same as every other patron yet he could not be tolerated.

People are jerks. They are convinced of the correctness of their actions especially when they have society praising their discriminatory behaviour. People want to be treated like people, not like rabid dogs whose food must be thrown from a distance to avoid contamination. When you treat others like they are uncivilized animals, it is best to stop and reflect on who the actual beast may be.

I missed an opportunity this weekend to say something to all those people in the restaurant who were upholding the status quo. I have to admit that I did not want to get involved; my kids were with me and I was not sure where the confrontation would go—I couldn’t risk my or my children's safety. The best I could do was make the incident a talking point, a means to discuss different points of view of the same incident; a chance to shape my children into the people I want them to be.

June 13/ 2016

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