There was a mom with three kids ages 4 and under at the library. They'd been there a few hours and it became clear they were waiting for a ride. The kids were getting restless, and the oldest, a very chatty girl firmly in the "Why?" stage of conversational topics, had struck up a friendship with me. I gave her as much attention as I could manage, but there's only so much answering the same questions over and over you can do, especially when you have other work to be working on ("What are you doing?" "I'm still working on fun library programs we can do here." "What are you doing now?" "Still trying to work on....") and this was going on for several hours. Then her little brother found a roll of stickers and began putting them on every available surface. It reminded me a bit of when Maddie comes to the library while I'm working—granted, Maddie is 8 years old and should know better, but that's part of the reason she now is no longer allowed to come to my programs unless she has another adult to be her guardian while I'm being the librarian, because she tends to take advantage of that awkward situation.
THESE kids HAD their own guardian, but she was in a pretty harried state trying to deal with them. I know she cleaned up chaos at the Lego table at least twice (and it had become chaos again by the time they left), and who knows about the back of the room that I couldn't see as well. I mean, three kids under 4, getting bored, and she was all by herself. You see, most moms in this situation would have said, "Enough! We're going home!" But she COULDN'T, because they didn't have a car, and their ride wasn't showing.
But the moment that really made me stop and think was when the mom asked to use the phone, so as to try to track their ride down. "Would I be able to use the telephone to make a really important call—"
"Sure," I said, jumping up to set up an outside line for her.
Her eyes got wide. "Really?" she said. "The other lady said no, you can't do that, the last time I asked."
Huh. I wondered who the "other lady" was. I mean, this was the desk by the teen room—we always had teenagers who needed to call for rides. Why should an adult be any different? I said as much to this woman, who—if you can imagine her saying something both "brightly" and "darkly" at the same time, that's how she responded—an obviously forced cheerfulness to cover some simmering rage: "Well, that lady—some people are like that."
Have I mentioned this family was black, and the mother had a slight accent? It's important because the meaning changes. This woman has been burned, I realized. This woman is used to being subtly discriminated against.
You may think I'm jumping to conclusions, but the longer we talked, the clearer it became. See, she HAD a cell phone, but she didn't want to tie it up trying to track down her ride, because she was waiting for an even more important phone call: from her husband, whose birthday it was, and who, she said in the most offhand way, "had been deported." DANG. Apparently devoted father of three kids under 4? And he was certainly well-loved and missed by those kids, judging by the intensity of the "HAPPY BIRTHDAY, PAPI!!!"s expressed when he DID call back.
And as for that phone—a lot of people take offense to poor people having smart phones, but what they don't realize is those people don't have any other computer, and they certainly don't have internet access at home. That's why she was at the library in the first place. And lest you think she was "wasting time on Facebook" or something.... "I'm sorry I keep eating up your wifi," she said. "That's what it's here for," I assured her, as she continued—again, as if she felt the need to justify her needs to me: "...I just have to get this done, it's important..." obviously, as she'd taken out an Access card to log in— "...What?" she said to her screen. "Why did it... have you dealt with this EBT system before?" she asked me.
"No," I said simply, but before I could say anything else, she said (still in the forced-cheerful voice), "Of course not, why would you, I'm asking the wrong person." Hey, I thought, I'm a librarian! I'm NEVER the wrong person to ask a question of! I could have continued, made a proper reference interview of it, first for that matter by asking if it worked through the Compass system which I HAVE dealt with before because my son gets Medicaid as a special needs kid, not counting my own financial struggles which just happened to have never gotten to EBT (that's food stamps, for you sheltered folks) levels. But by then she'd already gone away to work it out for herself.
Oh, right, there was another thing she said—she asked if we were hiring, and I said, "Maybe? We've just been through some major staffing changes," and she said, "I always ask if you're hiring and they always say no, but then I come in and there's some new kid working and I ask 'how did you get hired here?' and he says 'They asked me'—but I asked THEM and they always say no!"
Again, all these things together just added up and made me realize, this lady has been BURNED. She didn't fully trust me, and why should she, when she'd been navigating a lot of tough experiences with people in authority who SEEMED nice enough, but—some people are like that.
I felt super-conscious, remembering everything I've read about making sure the library is a welcoming place for EVERYONE, and how some things are so subtly unwelcoming that I might not noticed from my multiply-privileged vantage point. I mean, her kids were beginning to annoy me, but too many people would have seen those kids and been like, "THOSE people—I'm not saying this to be racist, but you know, those Caribbean people just don't watch their kids like we do here." I know otherwise: they were simply acting like kids that age ACT if they've been in a place too long, and the Heinz-57 white ladies with their fancy strollers would have taken those kids home when they started to get out of hand, because they had their own cars and could do that. But this woman had obviously encountered too much of the other attitude, and I wanted to make sure she understood that my annoyance really did come from the kids' behavior and NOT their identity, that People Like Them belong in the library just as much as anyone else. But how could I be sure, when her defenses were always on-guard?
What is the point of this story? To get people to pay attention more. It's all about listening, and not immediately trying to defend yourself. Sure, this lady didn't fully trust me because I was a well-educated white woman in a position of mild authority... was she being racist, judging me by the color of my skin? Technically, yeah, maybe. But when white people get all defensive and claim "reverse discrimination" and "what about MY rights?" and whatnot, they're failing to see what's actually happening. They're failing to notice that people have been burned, that people have been dealing with things they've never imagined dealing with themselves. It's the difference between me feeling a little uncomfortable because someone is wary of me because of direct past experience with people like me, and her being repeatedly written off, outright insulted, denied opportunities, and having her husband taken away from her (and that's just what I know about) all because of her ethnicity, based not on direct experience on the part of others but on their tendency toward generalization and double-standards.
All I'm saying is to be careful. When you feel the need to deflect, to offer excuses like "well they brought it on themselves by—" or of course "I don't see the problem so it can't be that bad," stop, pause, and listen. Maybe there's a genuine reason. What's really going on?
And what can you do to help?