I don’t know much about you. All I know is that you are Black and I am white and we were both waiting in line at the post office. I stood next to you instead of in front of you because last time I was in the post office there was a passport line and a regular line and I thought I was in the regular line and you were waiting for the passport lady. I didn’t read the sign. I was pretty distracted. I was on the phone with my mom, recounting some details of the pretty rough week I’ve been having. My son has a disability and is in a special needs class and it just became clear to me that he’s being mistreated, or maybe worse, and I’m being stonewalled by the school when I try to talk to them about it. I’m trying to advocate for him and maybe move him somewhere else but this all costs $$, which I don’t have a yacht full of. I’m pretty overwhelmed. And sad.
But I digress.
When the postal worker called “next in line”, I thought it
was my turn. I thought you were in the passport line. I was wrong. It was your
turn. I cut in front of you and didn’t even know it. When you called me out on
it, I was confused. I defended myself, and I told you that you were in the
passport line. You put me in my place. But by the time you finished talking the
postal worker was already done with my packages, where were pre-paid and just
needed to be handed to her, so I couldn’t even offer you
rightful place in line. I didn’t know what to do.
I thought our interaction was over.
But you still had more to say. As I walked toward the exit, you called after me, “you’re so privileged.” And you know what? That really really hurt. Because privilege means whiteness and whiteness means racism. And I really truly wasn’t trying to do something racist. I was confused and truly thought it was my turn.
So in my head I try to blame you. Maybe you’ve had a rough day too and said something that was out of line. Maybe, when you saw me standing next to you in the line that was not really a line, you could have turned to me with a friendly face and updated me about the new one-line policy.
So maybe this is all on you.
But it’s also 2 years and 1 day after George Floyd’s murder, less than 2 weeks after the murder of Black community members at a supermarket, and 2 days after Latino children were murdered at their school. So much murder, so much racism, so much pain. And maybe this small gesture of a white woman butting in front of a Black woman, even while distracted, is part of the ugly tapestry of unconscious bias and structural racism. Maybe my action today is part of your personal and communal narrative of racism, a thread in the ugly tapestry of hate. So who am I to tell you this is on you? You are Black and I am white and I cut you off in line.
Maybe it is all on me.
I’m confused and I’m crying and I don’t know what to do. So I’ll compose what I would have said to you had I been able to collect myself in that moment: “It’s hard for me to hear you say that. I didn’t mean to cut in front of you. I’ve had a really terrible week, and I’m distracted and not myself and didn’t read the sign. I’m really sorry. Please, go in front of me, it’s your turn. My mistake, go ahead.” Or, even earlier, I could have said, “Oh no, I’m so sorry! I TOTALLY thought you were in the passport line. Here, here, go ahead, go ahead.”
There’s no moral of the story here, no lesson to be learned. We will likely never see each other again, and I won’t be able to right my wrong. But I tell my residents and medical students, as well as my own children, that people make mistakes sometimes and what’s most important is that we learn something so that it doesn’t happen again. I’m not sure what I learned today. I know that I am feeling all the feelings, and as I let this incident wash over me over the coming days and weeks, perhaps I will gain some clarity and learn something.
So – if you are reading this, please know that I made a mistake and I am sorry. I am sorry for your pain, and for my part in it. I know your pain is different from my pain, but here we are, two women in pain, and maybe that could have brought us together instead of pushing us apart.