My husband is about 10 years older than I am. He has had gray hair since I’ve known him. According to family photos, he went gray by about age 29. Never a fan of hair dye, he just left it that way. So, in my opinion he is partly responsible for the supermarket conversation I’m about to describe. Picture a 45-year-old white male, with gray hair, with a three-year-old and an infant picking up soymilk and diapers.
You know where this is going. Poor, ancient cashier has no idea what she is in for! My husband approaches with little people in tow, and the cashier beams at him, “What gorgeous grandchildren you have!” Husband’s face turns red as cashier continues, “Are you having a fun day out with grandpa?” Jenna looks curiously at the cashier and say’s “Gampa? Where’s Gampa?”
At this point you’d assume that my husband would speak up and say he’s dad, but the cashier keeps going and says, “Your son or daughter married a colored, right?” Jeff bursts into laughter and says, “Colored? Who uses that word? What’s wrong with you? Have you no common sense? It’s the 21st century!”
Ancient cashier looks horrified, Jenna looks confused, head cashier comes over quickly to see what’s wrong and Hayden (infant) begins to wail! As Jeff recounts this tale to me, I envision ABC’s John Quinones and an episode of “What would you do?” Unfortunately, the host of the show does not appear in time to save the woman from my husband’s tongue-lashing! He proceeds to tell the head cashier that the woman is rude and racist who should mind her own business and do her job. He continues, loudly, to insist he won’t be shopping there again. The head cashier begins apologizing profusely, excuses the cashier, and finishes his purchase and asks if he would like to speak to the manager. He refuses and exits the store with the kids, in a huff.
I listen to the story and see that he is clearly angry even in the retelling of it. He seems proud that he told them off, but then he sees the look on my face and says, “What? That doesn’t piss you off?” I said, “Actually, no. It seems the woman was merely trying to make conversation. Granted, she made a couple of wrong assumptions. Why didn’t you tell her the truth?” Jeff blinks at me and says, “It was none of her business!” I said, “True, but you missed an opportunity to educate her and ease Jenna’s confusion. As a girl who grew up without her father, I’m extremely sensitive to making sure our children feel secure in their parents’ love for them. You missed an opportunity to proudly claim your children and correct her assumptions.”
He got it, he laughed and said, “I was so busy being offended that she thought I was too old to have young children or to marry a black woman that I forgot to answer Jenna’s question about where gampa was!” I hugged him and told him that his gray hair didn’t help the situation. Jeff shook his head and said, “That poor cashier. I will have to apologize, and introduce her to my children.” We laughed long and hard about that one and I occasionally call him Gramps.
To me this woman was a product of her era and she was honestly trying to connect with her customer no matter how clumsily. Not every question about race is racist. Heck, the older people in my family still say “colored.” To be fair I wasn’t there and no one was calling me old. So, I understand Jeff was annoyed.
Has this ever happened to you? Were you were so busy being offended that you failed to actually address the questions before you? People are often flustered by situations they can’t decipher, but we all make assumptions. Do you go off or educate? Do you react differently when your children are watching?
FYI, we still shop at the store and the cashier smiles when she sees us and has been known to sneak the girls lollipops.
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Hillery Smith Shay, is a proven leader in Visual Communications and New Media Marketing. She holds a MBA, from Bethel University and a Bachelor of Fine Arts from Haverford College. Shay is an award-winning photographer who has worked for the Associated Press and various newspapers. Hillery resides in West Saint Paul with her husband Jeff and their daughters Jenna and Hayden. She is also the proud stepmother of Erin, Ginger and Jack. Read more about her at hilleryshay.com and follow her Twitter @crazphotochick.