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How misunderstandings can become stereotypes

Esther J. Cepeda on

This poor man was completely flummoxed. First, he initially didn't even realize she was talking to him and then I could see he was trying to puzzle out what was happening. But he was trying to do so while being rudely hectored by a woman who was saying things he couldn't understand.

At this point I wanted to crawl under a table. It escalated in seconds: The guy was getting upset, she was gesturing excitedly. I was about to intervene to explain the whole thing to him when he grabbed his jacket and coffee and walked out, grumbling angrily at her while proceeding to take off on his bike.

She offered some "good riddance" teeth-sucking.

I felt as though some frightening bullet had been dodged, like we had come perilously close to someone breaking down in frustration and becoming the latest person caught on camera screaming "Learn English or go home!" to a hard-working (albeit not terribly customer-service oriented) immigrant.

In truth, it was just a misunderstanding of the sort that could happen even between two people who are fluent in the same language -- maybe she'd had a bad day. But two people walked away feeling disrespected, indignant and probably had some ugly stereotypes (obstinate, entitled white man; uppity monolingual foreigner) reinforced.

Though I did speak with the manager and asked him to instruct his non-bilingual staff to ask a fluent English speaker to approach diners next time there's a concern with a customer, I should have spoken up sooner.

As someone who straddles both cultures, I should have taken it as my responsibility to not let those two people misunderstand each other in such an ugly fashion.

Across the country, people of all walks of life are feeling excluded, marginalized and disrespected these days. Making ourselves open to righting or soothing the tiniest, day-to-day micro-aggressions and injustices may not be as publicly satisfying as social media sharing a virtual petition, but if we want to help people through these turbulent times, we must start with having each other's backs.

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Esther Cepeda's email address is estherjcepeda@washpost.com.

(c) 2017, Washington Post Writers Group

 

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