(@8 – promoted by NLinStPaul)
It was a brilliant summer day in Atlanta, and the lumescent, blue sky lifted my already risen spirits as I was planning my wedding. A coworker and I were shopping for wedding dresses in an upscale suburb, both of us dressed in the standard uniform for such an event: sweats and sneakers. My coworker carried the look off with much more chic than I, with her tall frame, warm brown eyes and rich, espresso colored skin giving her the natural grace of a woman for whom sweats is a weekend indulgence.
Me? I just looked a little dumpy.
We had just hit our first shop, a cozy, new business run by a mother/daughter team. The dresses, and brides, and bridesmaids, and friends, and female relatives filled the tiny store with a joyous, bustling excitement. My coworker found The Dress, and insisted to me it just had to be The Dress, and after I tried it on still was talking about The Dress when we hit our second shop.
The second shop was a bigger establishment, with large windows, and floor to ceiling mirrors, teaming with mostly blonde-haired, mostly blue-eyed, uniformly petite, white, female staff. As we walked in we saw the demographics of the clientele matched those of the store assistants, like separate socks of an identical pair.
We proceeded toward the racks of dresses, placed in the middle of the expansive space, when we were met by a store clerk.
“May I help you?” She asked, suspiciously eyeing my coworker.
“Yes.” I said. “We just want to try on some dresses.”
The clerk, never taking her eyes off my coworker, exhaled deeply, her voice trembling with annoyance and a touch of fear.
“Our brides,” she said, “make an appointment.”
“Um…okay.” I said. “Can we make one later on today?”
“No.” She said, barely looking at me.
“Well, can we make one next weekend?” I asked.
“No.” She said. “The only day we have available for appointments is Wednesday. And the store closes at six.”
“Oh.” I said, unsure of what to say next. “Well, we both work so, I guess we’ll just go somewhere else then.”
“Yes, I think you should.” And with that the store clerk glanced toward the door, willing us toward it with all the body language she could muster.
It was outside, heading toward the car that my coworker looked at me, a small, white woman, her eyes still stinging with disbelief.
“Was that…” She hesitated. “Was that what I think it was?”
I looked up at her, my blue eyes meeting hers.
“Yes.” I answered.
We silently drove back to the cozy, cramped store, not knowing what to say about what had just happened.
The problem with racism is it strikes regardless of whether you’re prepared for it or not. Like a cold slap it hits you in the face, unprepared, and leaves you reeling as you try to search for answers. What just happened? Was this really real? Why did it happen to me?
And then it leaves a small wound in your soul, that heals slowly until the scab is ripped off by the next event that takes you just as much by surprise. It leaves you with a small kernel of pain deep inside.
Sexism does the same thing. I remember the frustration, sitting in front of my corpulent boss after getting up the nerve to ask him to be considered for a promotion from secretary to one of two sales jobs that had just opened up, when he told me in no uncertain terms that because I was a young woman all I was going to do was go have babies so why would he give me one of these jobs just to have me leave. My education, my experience with the company meant nothing. I was young, and female, and somehow that meant “unpromotable”.
And sometimes events like this, across a person’s life, just serve to grow that kernel of pain until it lashes out at the society that nurtured it. It can happen when delivering a sermon, in the heat of cheering crowds. It can happen when writing an op-ed in the New York Times, telling women they just have to vote for a female candidate in order to be “true” feminists.
The one strength we have as progressives is empathy. We aren’t progressives because we’re rich, or because we love free markets and small government. We’re progressives because, at some point in time, all of us have felt or seen others feel that kernel of pain, either because of race, or gender, or sexual orientation, or economic status. We have seen injustice in people being denied health care, and we question a foreign policy that pursues death and destruction over peace and diplomacy.
We have empathy. We put ourselves in someone else’s shoes and understand injustice from that person’s perspective.
But somehow in this presidential race, good progressives have lost that empathy. We have allowed ourselves to be so co-opted by winning, and strategy, and what’s-worse-sexism-or-racism that we have lost our empathy. We have turned our back on the very thing that made us progressives in the first place. We have failed to understand each other, and instead hurl insult and invective at each other as fast as our fingers can fly over our keyboards.
This is no longer about Barack Obama. It is no longer about Hillary Clinton. Forget the “50 state strategy”, or coat-tails, or turning red states into blue states. Partisans on both sides have now become the rigid idealogues we have decried on the right for so many years.
We have lost our empathy, and in doing so we have lost our way.
So, this weekend, try for a moment to walk away from the keyboard, shut your eyes and put yourself into that other person’s place. Understand where they are coming from. Put aside the anger, and frustration, and outrage.
It is time to reconcile, and take back our strength again.