KENORA, Ontario: Check-out counter encounter
This item comes from the Christian Peacemaker Team in Kenora, Ontario, which focuses on institutional racism. The reflection raises questions about how each of us engages racism when it appears in our immediate surroundings.
To those of you on the list who are white: How can we strengthen ourselves to be able to intervene when racism rears its head in ways subtle or shocking? To those who are people of color: How do you stay spiritually strong in the midst of the death-culture of racism?
On Earth Peace
CPTnet, 20 November 2005
KENORA, ON: Check-out counter encounter
by Esther Kern
It was closing time at the Extra Foods grocery store on a Saturday night in Kenora, Ontario. As I stood at the checkout counter, placing my milk, carrots, and margarine on the conveyer belt, I noticed a young native boy, about ten years old, pushing an empty grocery cart toward the bread section of the store. Following behind him was a man who appeared to be his father.
Suddenly the cashier stopped ringing up my groceries, raised her arm and pointed at the man. "You!" she barked. The man stopped immediately and turned to see where this command was coming from. Without another word, the cashier pointed to the exit doors of the store as if she were a traffic cop.
The man turned and walked out of the store, wilted by the power of that pointing finger. It took a moment for the little boy to figure out what was happening. Seeing his father walking towards the exit, he left the grocery cart and trailed guiltily after him. Without missing a beat or any further comment, the cashier continued to ring up my purchases. I gathered my groceries and hurried out to the parking lot with the hope I might catch them, but they had disappeared into the night.
In ten seconds I witnessed an incident that encapsulates the many stories we are hearing from Anishinaabe people in Kenora--stories of humiliation, exclusion, white privilege, violence, racism, and clashes of culture. Why was the man evicted from the store? Had he been banned for shoplifting?
Would the cashier have treated a white customer such disrespect? Did the cashier assume that I would think her behaviour normal and appropriate?
What impact did this incident have on the young boy accompanying the man?
It all happened so quickly. On my way back to the church where CPT is staying I thought about how I could have responded. I quickly forgot the incident, however, when I became immersed again in our busy CPT household.
Two days later, during a meeting with the Anishinaabe Peace and Justice Coalition, I was listening to more stories of racism and violence, and the scene at the grocery store pierced my consciousness like a lightning bolt. I felt an overwhelming sense of guilt. An opportunity to speak up and act on behalf of a native man receiving disrespectful treatment had slipped through my fingers like warm butter.
As we debriefed the incident, we brainstormed a list of things I could have done. I could have asked the cashier, "Why are you treating this man like that?" I could have said, "I feel really uncomfortable with how you just spoke to that person." I could have contacted the manager, described what happened and asked for an explanation. Next time I'll be ready to speak up.
Are you ready?
The Christian Peacemaker Team in Kenora is working with a community organizing project focussed on undoing racism. The Kenora project will conclude on December 12 and resume in 2006 (February 6-April 23.)