That alone isn’t unusual. I know many women who wear the Muslim headscarf as part of their faith. What gave me pause wasn’t this young woman’s attire; it was how the store cashier treated her.
I came to the check-out lane at the end of the woman’s transaction and immediately sensed the tension. The cashier was visibly annoyed, speaking to the Muslim woman in a clipped monotone. The woman, clearly nervous, tapped tentatively at the credit card reader as the cashier became increasingly agitated.
But as soon as I reached the counter, a transformation occurred. The cashier turned to me, flashed a dazzling smile and said, “Hello, sir! I’ll be with you in just a moment.” Then she looked again at the Muslim woman, and her face fell back into shadow.
As I puzzled over this, the cashier suddenly abandoned the woman entirely, gave me another smile and started ringing up my items. She asked about my day, joked about whether my candy bar purchase was a substitute for lunch, and laughingly shared how many Snickers bars her football-playing son could consume. I kept glancing at the Muslim woman, trying to catch her eye, eager to offer a smile and figure out what was happening.
She never looked at me. As I watched, she silently finished her transaction on the credit card reader, picked up her bag of items and, head hung low, walked out of the store. All the while, the cashier gaily spoke to me, completely ignoring her other customer. I don’t even recall seeing her print a receipt for the Muslim woman.
It finally dawned on me what I’d witnessed.
It’s one thing to read about acts of prejudice in news stories or hear about them from friends; it’s quite another to observe one, especially in a supposedly “polite” community like mine. But for many people of color or from religious minorities, it’s a daily occurrence.
I’ve been troubled by the incident for days now. How I wish I’d realized what was happening sooner! I could have engaged the woman in conversation, or at least called out a pleasant word so the last thing she experienced in that store wasn’t the cashier’s cold shoulder. I could have pushed back against the cashier’s rudeness.
Maybe there’s more to the story. Maybe something happened before I arrived, a disagreement that I didn’t witness. But that’s not what it felt like. What I saw in the Muslim woman’s face was sadness and embarrassment. What I saw in the cashier’s face was contempt. What I felt directed at me was the benefit of white privilege—and I’m ashamed of that.
This isn’t a blog about organizational communication. It’s about the need for each of us to stop using skin color or religious identity or political persuasion as excuses to treat others like dirt. Prejudice like I observed creates a gulf that keeps us from connecting and communicating, a gulf that allows us to demonize others for what they think or how they look or whom they love. It’s a chasm that quickly leads to hatred and violence.
Most importantly, this is a blog about the need for each of us to step up and call out prejudice. I was caught flat-footed this time; I won’t be next time.