The Incident at the Grocery Store

I said (on Twitter) I would post about our Tuesday night incident at the grocery store, but then I changed my mine because of some of the issues involved. But I cannot stop thinking about it and with a whole 48-hours distance, I’ve decided to post what happened. 

Tuesday night, Daniel and I were walking into the grocery store to buy cookies for a class project they were doing the next day. 

Suddenly, a voice behind me said, “Why did you stick out your tongue at me? And why are you making such ugly faces?” I turned around to see a man behind us. I bent down to Daniel and asked him if he stuck out his tongue at the man because I was going to tell him to apologize and then Daniel, who is going through quite a rude phase, said, “You’re going to jail” to this African American man. Let us all cringe at this unfortunate, poorly-timed comment.

The man replied, “oh I see you have been watching TV. That’s right…start them early.” Then he shook his head and walked past us.

I was in shock and fuming because this man had just called my child racist when in truth, he was being an asshole.

We bought the cookies and Daniel was helpfully acting up in the cashier’s line and wanting all the candy. The man was by the customer service desk, observing all of this. I looked at him as we were leaving and he raised an eyebrow and shook his head at us.

I should have let it go. Maybe I should have walked over and apologized for my child sticking out his tongue and try to explain he was being an asshole.

Instead I walked over and asked him if he had anything else to say to me. He told me that what else could he think when my child said things like that other than it must come from the parents. I tried to explain that Daniel is 5 and loves his Lego police set and that he would tell anyone to go to jail. He said I didn’t even apologize to him. I said I didn’t have a chance and that he doesn’t know anything about me. He says all he knows is what he sees, a mid-30s white woman with a child who knows hate.

Our voices are rising as you can imagine and Daniel, who doesn’t know what is going on, starts flailing an arm at the man. I drag him away and the man shouts, “see? You have a horrible-ass kid with terrible parents.” 

I shake my head and leave. 

I was pretty devastated after that and Daniel was upset too. That night he kept saying he was going to put that man in jail forever and all I can think is how that exactly what that man has to fear. 

I’m sorry it happened. I’m sorry that 5-year-old kids being assholes can be an unfortunate trigger. I’m sorry that this incident has shocked me to my core when as a privileged white lady, this is rare for me while likely a common occurrence for many others. I’m sorry it is a challenge taking my child out right now when he is too often rude, sassy and defiant despite my best efforts.

Mostly, I’m just sorry.

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14 comments

  1. Oh sweetie-anyone who “knows” you knows that you didn’t raise your child to hate that man, and that your child DOESN’T hate that man. Your child is just a child, who is going through a phase. If he had said the same comments to a man of any other race they still would have been rude, but unfortunately they were to a black man, so they seemed racially charged. I know that’s not how you’re raising your child, and it also seems like that man was hankering for a fight, because engaging a child who sticks his tongue out is just ridiculous-get over it. Kids do shit like that.

    Please go easy on yourself.

  2. Isn’t it amazing how people will jump to conclusions about your parenting. All you can do is damage control now, teaching your child love, which I know you do.

  3. I am so sorry about this. Very unfair. Jumping to conclusions is so easy, and probably that men had his share of racism that goaded him to have this reaction.

    I was reminded of a story involving the family of a gypsy violinist, very famous in my country. The equivalent of “nigger” in my language is “crow”. This violinist and his wife were lighter skinned, but his son had quite a dark complexion. One time they were driving abroad, and the customs officer recognised the violinist, who was always very proud of his origin, checked their papers, gave them back saying “Everything is in order, but you should get that crow off your car”. The violinist of course was incensed and started to argue loudly that that was his son, and calling names is despicable, until the officer showed him that an actual crow got somehow killed and was still glued to the radiator grill, you know how it sometime happened to birds that got sucked in by the air current and died on the front of the car. And he should get it off.

    Jumping to conclusions is easy. Go easy on yourself, you are not to blame for the complicated history and relations related to skin colour. Nor are you to be blamed for how your five year old acts up.

    1. Something similar to the “crow” thing happened to me once too. I was talking about a guy whose last name I couldn’t remember and then I said “Coon! It was James Coon!” And a black kid walking in front of me turned around and gave me a dirty look. I felt bad even though it was totally innocent.

  4. Oh, and I also remembered this time when I was talking to a neighbour and someone intervened and started this discussion about how we “should get our Germany back from the hands of these filthy immigrants”. Erm, yes, we totally should. Let’s start by recruiting the white, blonde, German speaking IMMIGRANTS across the street to fight the right fight. He told me that I was an expatriate, not an immigrant. What is the difference? Skin colour, naturally. Total arse, that one…

    1. I looked up the difference between expat and immigrant recently. Expat is someone who plans on going back to their (home) country. An immigrant is someone who plans on staying in the foreign country. I’m an immigrant. It’s not a bad thing!

  5. What a cruddy situation. I hope posting about it is a release and you are able to let it go. You are not a terrible parent, kids act out sometimes (and usually at the worst time), they are their own person, especially at 5 years of age. The guy however, will always be an asshat.

  6. So many many many thoughts. I am trying so very hard to teach the kids the horrible history we have in this country with racism. We recently toured MLK’s house in Atlanta and a plantation and its slave quarters in S.C. I really try to raise the kids with a strong sense of social justice. I do wonder if it is impossible to avoid kids saying things that might offend someone. I guess the best thing is to address them head on when they occur and give context.

  7. This is tough, because our country is in a very bad place right now with how we treat each other, but how we treat African Americans in particular. Honestly, I can see why he was so upset. As much as we all want to be rational and thoughtful in situations like this, it may have been the straw that broke the camels back for him. He’s probably regretting how he treated you, but also thinking, “what else was I supposed to think?”

    Something similar happened to me at Christmas time. But it was what I said that triggered a woman after she scowled at Matthew and I made a comment. Long story short, after exchanging few words, I just walked off. I didn’t know what to do to make the situation better. She hurt my feelings, I hurt hers (unknowingly – my words were a simple trigger for her own losses), and I should have stopped and said, “I’m so sorry.”. But I didn’t. I walked away. Telling Brian later about it, he said, “I know you feel bad, but how were you supposed to know that you were saying, “some people forget what it’s like having small children” (that really is ALL I said) to someone who lost her kids? You couldn’t know that.”. And you couldn’t control Daniels behavior and comment. We do and say things (and our kids do too) that we sometimes deeply regret, but they don’t make us (or our kids) bad people.

    He was hurting, a white kid triggered him, he got angry, and you were perplexed. It happens. It sucks, but it happens. Don’t be hard on yourself.

  8. I said this on twitter last night, but putting it here for posterity: I am sure the man has suffered many, many racial indignities in his life. It is a shame that he interpreted this as another one when it wasn’t.

  9. I’m glad you posted about this because all too often, we see an incident or are involved in an incident and we judge, not knowing the back story. And now we have the back story and it should be a reminder not to only see things from a single angle.

  10. That’s really hard, and I’m sorry you had to go through it.

    Kids can be real a**holes sometimes, and it’s a shame that this particular man felt targeted by your child. I’m sorry he chose to interpret Daniel’s actions in a way that they were not meant.

    It is a real eye opener about racial privilege though, no? What is clearly an off-the-cuff, flippant remark by a child to us can be viewed as a racist taunt by someone else. Maybe he was having a really terrible day and that was the last straw.

  11. it really goes to show how triggers can be anywhere. Given an incident that X had recently, I am thoroughly relieved to hear that 5 year olds can just be assholes no matter how good the parenting is.

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