‘He ain’t right.’ You’re not what he said you are.

In honor of George Floyd, whose tragic death is what finally opened my eyes. Not being a racist is not enough.

I feel like I’m walking a tightrope writing this blog. As I begin, I’m praying for the right words to flow from my heart to my fingertips. My intention is to share an experience from a few years ago that now has new, deeper meaning for me.

I’ve told this story a few times over the past two years as if I was merely an observer to what unfolded. Today – in response to the events which started on May 25 – I know now my role in speaking out against the kind of racial hatred that too many Americans endure day in and day out.

The participants

In January 2018, my middle-school-aged son asked me to take him to a video game store down the street from our home. I knew that this chain of stores had experienced armed robberies around Christmas time. I even knew a dad from my son’s hockey team who was in one of the stores during a holdup. He was telling me the story the day after it happened, and it was obvious he was still shook up.

I took my son to the video game store anyway, but I was on full alert walking in. Once inside, I saw there was a line of people waiting at the check-out counter. The store employee was a black man, probably in his late 20s. He was waiting on a young black man, probably around 19 or 20, and he was with a black friend who was wandering around the store.

Next in line was a middle-aged white woman, a few years younger than me. She was with a teenager who had an autism spectrum disorder. Behind them in line was a black woman, older than me, and a black boy younger than my son was with her. I got in line behind them, and my son was looking around the back of the store. We are both white.

Those are the observable characteristics of the people in the store. I’ll be honest here and now tell you about the story that was going on in my head.

The store employee looked like a cool guy — someone who’d be fun to hang out with at a backyard barbecue. The older women appeared to be the grandmother of the young boy. I wasn’t getting a “mom” vibe from the middle-aged woman who was with the teenager — maybe she was a much older sister or an aunt. The young man who was talking to the store employee looked like a computer geek, and his friend looked to me like he could be a dangerous man. Like he associates with dangerous people. I was intimidated by him.

The incident

Something was causing a delay with the store employee completing the transaction with the young man. This is typical at the video game store. He could be pre-ordering a game, updating his membership, selling back used games, processing a return or exchange, etc.

Bored with the wait, his friend started looking around the store. That’s when my son and I walked in. The intimidating-looking man and I were squeezing by one another in a small aisle.

I said, “excuse me,” and he said, “oh sorry,” and I said, “you’re fine.” As this was happening, I didn’t feel any negative energy from him. I relaxed.

Aside from selling video games, the store sells a lot of collectibles and memorabilia. There were a lot of eye-catching things all around, especially to someone who is bored with the wait.

What grabbed the man’s attention most was a rack of character t-shirts. He was getting a kick out of holding up the humorous shirts as if he wanted to buy one of them.

“Yo,” he said to everyone, “Check out my new Pokemon shirt.”

It was cute. I giggled.

He must have seen that he got the attention of the other middle-aged woman because he jokingly said to her, “When did they start selling clothes at [the video game store]?”

The woman gave a reply, and they shared a few more comments and chuckles back and forth.

The teenage boy with her was showing simple movement and sound tics. Then suddenly he spoke out loud and clear: “Ha! I can’t believe you’re talking to that n-word!”

I had turned my back to the group at this point just to see where my son was. He and I were both closest to the back of the store. When I heard what the teen said, I froze. And waited for something to happen.

The man spoke up, asking the teenager. “What did you say? I can’t believe you said that!”

The woman gasped loudly and yelled at the teenager, “Why did you say that? Why did you say that?”

I don’t think the woman knew what to do next. She just kept yelling at the teen, “Why did you say that?”

Then the man chuckled and said, “Hey, it’s alright… I can see he ain’t right.”

Oh brother. I was too afraid to move, but in my head I was planning an escape route for my son through the backroom. I would have done whatever I needed to get him out, if this situation got worse.

The woman continued to yell at the teen, saying he was going to be in big trouble. Then the man began to tell her to take it easy on him, that he didn’t want her to be upset with the teenager.

In each of the next few awkward exchanges between the two of them, there was something very distinctive that struck me as odd. She never told the teenager that what he said was wrong. She never asked him where he learned to say that. She never apologized to the man for what the teenager said.

All the while, not a single one of the rest of us said a word. Finally the woman remembered how her legs worked and she towed the teenager out the door with her, leaving behind whatever she had planned to buy. In that moment I said a prayer for the teenager. I was afraid for what he’d face next.

When they were out the door, and just as I was about to breathe a sigh of relief, the man made a comment to his friend.

“Can you believe that? I still can’t believe he said that,” he said. “Boy, good thing I was here with you. If it had been me and [so-and-so], we’d be drawin’ out!”

“Oh dear God,” I thought to myself.

Yes, it is a good thing he wasn’t with a different friend indeed.

What I did next

Still nothing. I so wanted to say something to this man. And I ran a hundred things through my head, but I wasn’t confident I could deliver what was in my heart.

I wanted to say “thank you” without it sounding like “thank you for not hurting anyone.”

I wanted to say “good job” without it sounding like a white stamp of approval.

I wanted to say something, anything that would shatter the predisposition I held of a potentially armed black man’s ability to make a good decision when addressed with such an evil word.

I entered the store that day mentally prepared for a holdup. I wasn’t prepared to witness such blatant racism.

While the woman was still there, I didn’t want to insert myself in their conversation. I don’t believe it was a place where I belonged. But I kept my back turned — literally and figuratively — on the whole thing.

Here this man was bravely facing this woman and the teenager who had said the most horrific thing to him. He was not only forgiving them — on the spot — but also defending the teenager, allowing his mental deficiency to be an excuse for this behavior.

And I wasn’t even brave enough to try making eye contact with him, with the hope that he could feel my compassion and understand that I was on his side.

Shoulda, coulda, woulda. How many times do we walk away from a situation wishing we had done something differently?

What I wish I had done after the woman and the teen left was use the man’s own words, “I can see he ain’t right,” not in regard to the teenager’s disorder, but relative to what he had said.

I wish I would have said, “I agree with you:  ‘He ain’t right.’ You’re not what he said you are.” And then I should have shook his hand.

What I know now

The murder of George Floyd and the ensuing protests (both peaceful and violent) have given me a new perspective on a number of things that I’m sorry I didn’t realize sooner.

  1. In addition to wanting to say something positive to the man for his reaction, I should have admonished what was said. And I should have made that acknowledgement not just to the one man but to everyone else left in the store with me and my son. Although the teenager’s comment was directed to just one of them, it was equally insulting to the other blacks who heard it.
  2. I was wrong to assume that the woman with the teenager was guilty by association. I don’t know what her relationship to him was, and I don’t know that she was a party to him learning how to use that word in that context. Maybe she was, but that’s not for me to assume.
  3. It didn’t occur to me until this week that by not saying anything to any of them, it may have appeared that I agreed with the statement — that they had no allies that day.

So to the universe I would like to say, if you see those two friends, the older woman and the young boy, or the store employee, please let them know that I am deeply sorry that I didn’t make any effort to show them I was on their side. I’m sorry that I didn’t know until now that not being a racist is not enough — that I need to stand with them to fight racism in my own means. I need to make it my fight too. And I won’t make that mistake again.