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Politics

How misunderstandings can become stereotypes

Esther J. Cepeda on

CHICAGO -- After weeks of racial unrest, protests, animosity and even some evocative demonstrations of support for communities of color, I've come to the conclusion that the most powerful thing we can do right now is watch out for each other.

As a result of 24-7 coverage of torch-wielding white supremacists and reactions from those the brazenly bare-faced neo-Nazis seek to eradicate, the economic, political, racial and cultural divisions that usually lie just beneath the surface of everyday interactions now seem like powder kegs.

We need to be aware of these potentially explosive situations and step in, or take a stand, whenever possible.

Last week I was in a majority-white, but demographically shifting, suburb at a fast food burger joint in which the entire staff -- counter and cleaning crew -- was Hispanic. I placed my order and was served, in English, and then sat down to eat.

An older, white gentleman who had been standing in line behind me collected his cup of coffee and sat two booths away from me to drink and read his newspaper.

Enter a fastidious Latina cleaning crew member storming through the dining area, picking up discarded napkins, trays and coffee stirrers. This woman -- the antithesis of the stereotypical gum-chewing, text-checking teen employee you've seen half-heartedly wiping down tables -- was clearly on a mission.

I was admiring this woman's furrow-browed attention to detail when I saw her spot a bicycle leaning up against the window by the entrance to the restaurant. The bicycle may have been partially blocking the door -- I couldn't tell from where I was sitting -- but I could see on her face that this was in clear violation of the norms she felt were appropriate for safe passage into the store.

She set her sights on the white gentleman who was in the middle of trying to pry his creamer open for his coffee, and then things got tense.

She started waving her hands and sort of "Hey-hey-hey"-ing at the guy. She got up close to him, making eye contact and repeating "You, no!" at the man while pointing at the bike.

He had no clue what was going on and sort of politely brushed her off. But this lady wasn't having it. In fact, she got frustrated and started telling him, fully in Spanish but mixed with some vaguely English utterances, that he needed to move his bike.

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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