Tuesday, February 27, 2024
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The Shrug

by Nancy Travers

I went to the local Walmart about two weeks ago. I walked into the entrance behind two women; one about 20-22 years old and the other maybe 40. Both black. The young woman was wearing a jacket (it was rather chilly and rainy that day) and had a drawstring bag on her shoulder. I remember this because I thought, “what a cute bag!”

We each took turns to spray antibacterial solution on paper towels, each retrieved a cart, and each proceeded to wipe down our cart. The younger woman was closest to the table with the antiseptic spray, horizontally lined up next to her was the older woman, and lined up next to her was me.

Others entered the area and retrieved their carts behind us. An older woman, probably close to my age; mid 50s, maybe older, entered the store. She was white. She walked in front of me, in front of the older woman next to me, and then walked between the older woman’s cart and the younger woman’s cart. She walked behind the younger woman who was still wiping down her cart. The 50-plus white woman took the young woman’s cart by the handle and without looking at the young woman said, “That’s fine, thanks,” and proceeded to take the cart, rolling it into the store.

I was frozen. I felt as though I was punched in the gut. Worse. I felt as though I was kicked in the gut.

I looked at the young woman and realized she could not tell because of my mask that I was mouthing OH MY GOSH. So I said it out loud; rather loud; OH MY GOSH. The young woman shrugged. It wasn’t a “oh well with a smile lets move on” shrug. It was a “demeaned, dismissed, it’s happened before and will happen again” shrug. I then said, “I’m so sorry.” And for the rest of my life I will never forget her shrug at that. This shrug was not mean, but defeated. This shrug was “Sure you are. Who am I to you? And again…not the first, not the last time” shrug.

I wanted to hug her. I wanted to take it away. I wanted her to know she is not dismissed or demeaned in my eyes. I wanted her to know that I am not the only one. And then I thought, how arrogant am I to think I have that ability. Because I’m white? Is that for her or for me?

As I walked into the store, I wanted to find the 50-plus white woman. I wanted to say, “Do you realize you took that young woman’s cart? Do you realize she was sanitizing it for herself? Do you realize what you did?”

Then I thought maybe the older white woman would have treated her the same regardless of color. Perhaps it was because she was young, not black. Perhaps if she was a young, white woman, the older white woman would have thought she too was a Walmart employee and taken the cart. Although that, too, would be elitist, at least it wouldn’t be racist. But my first reaction was felt in my gut. I tried to excuse her, not because she was white, but because I really want to see the best in people, to give the benefit of the doubt. But there was no doubt. I knew my gut instinct was right.

My eyes scanned the shoppers to find the woman, but I hadn’t gotten a good look at her and didn’t really know what she looked like. I gave up finding her and gave up confronting her.

Then I thought, “I bet she doesn’t realize what she did. I bet she totally believes she is not racist. I bet she’s even said to friends and co-workers that she is not a racist.” And at that I thought “No excuse.”

And then it hit me almost as hard as the gut punch when I saw her take the cart. It hit me that I’ve said to myself and probably have said out loud, “I’m not racist.” It hit me that even though I’ve proclaimed my non-racism, I questioned myself. Have I done or said anything racist not thinking, not knowing it was in fact racist? Have I said or done anything that caused my friends to shrug the way the young woman did? Have I caused any of my friends to feel demeaned, defeated, or dismissed?

I wasn’t able to wipe away the tears fast enough before more spilled onto my cheeks. My sight was blurred through the tears as I tried to navigate my way down the aisles of the Walmart. I was lost. I couldn’t stand, can’t stand the thought that anyone I know, anyone at all could feel that shrug because of me.

Its burned into my brain, that shrug; that one small gesture was so much bigger than that young woman knows. It spoke to me louder than any voice I’ve ever heard. And I don’t ever want to hear it, see it again. I want to eradicate that shrug. But how?

I relayed the story. I asked, “How can I make a difference? What can I do?”

I was told to use my voice…and my white privilege. I cringed at that term. I don’t have a lot of money. I didn’t skate through life. I struggle. I’ve been knocked down time and again. I’ve always worked hard and earned my own way. “I am not privileged,” I’d tell myself.

A new friend told me about her 25-year-old son who lives in Norfolk. His car broke down and she said he now relies on public transportation. She says she is so relieved. She says she sleeps better at night knowing he has lowered his risk of getting pulled over. She, as a mother, feels more safety for her son to take the bus than to drive his own vehicle.

I realized how different our situations are. I, as the mother of a 22-year-old and 29-year-old, am more comfortable for each to drive his and her own vehicle. I would worry terribly when they took the bus. I never thought to worry for their lives if either was pulled over.

And it all comes down to the color of skin.

THAT’S the white privilege.

What can I do to make a difference? I can speak. I can use my voice. I will use my white privilege. If being white means I will be heard, then I have plenty to say. I won’t move mountains. I won’t eradicate the shrug. But I can speak.

Anyone can find a way to make a difference. Each personal difference together CAN move mountains. Each personal difference CAN eradicate the shrug.

I won’t ever shake that shrug. But my hope, wish and prayer is not for me to never see it again, but for no one to ever shrug that shrug again.

Nancy Travers of White Stone is a marketing consultant and advertising sales representative at WKWI 101-7 Bay FM and 104.9 WIGO Country.

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