Back in my home state, stopping at a convenience store, looking for the perfect snack—I couldn’t help over hearing the conversation between two men sitting behind the counter. I wish I hadn’t heard a word. The topic(s) bounced back and forth from one derisive dig to another funny comment (to them) about “Mexico” and “Mexicans.” Trust me, they were having a very good time.
A good time bought at the expense of a young Hispanic man working the cash register but not running his mouth; not a single word in reply. In their defense, I’m sure the two men would say that “the kid” knew they were just joking, just fooling around and having fun. And true enough, when the young man turned to look at them he would smile—but not when he turned to look at us. In those moments his expression lacked any sign of a good time or a sense of humor. But what is he supposed to do? If he were to ask the men to stop, to tell them that their comments were offensive and hurtful, would most likely earn him a reputation of a thin-skinned “kid” who can’t take a joke. Or worse, it might cost him his job (and his reputation in this small town).
As we left, I told Dana that I would have liked to have said something to the men: first, about Mexico belonging to North America (a mistaken fact in their jokes), then to explain to them that the young man could easily sue for work place harassment and that I would be happy to testify on his behalf. But instead I said nothing, did nothing—and felt corrupt and conflicted. What could I have done that would help him? Do I speak, cause him trouble, and leave him behind to sort it out? Or do I remain silent and leave him for the wolves to keep picking away?
Recently, Dana came across a good definition of racism (summarized here): “Prejudice with (or exercising) power.” The truth is that we all have prejudices—good or bad, right or wrong. Our human condition predisposes us to look at those unlike ourselves and recognize the difference. It is counter-productive to believe or pretend we do not notice or have prejudices—we do. And to admit their presence is a healthy step in the right direction. More important, however, is whether we recognize our positions of power and how we might misuse our power to serve our prejudice—like an owner of a convenience store embracing his prejudice with his position of power to make-fun of an employee’s heritage. This is racism.
I still don’t know what I could or should have done when I saw and heard racism in practice. Should I have spoken out? Or did I do the right thing to not say a word? Or am I creating excuses for myself? All I know is that the measure of love is how my actions affect those around me—do my actions and words help or hurt others? What action reflects the heart of God, a God who works toward genuine solutions? Or maybe the most far-reaching change that could come about from what I experienced occurs when I take the time to admit my biases, recognize my power and influence, and take the time to look for how and when prejudice and power converge in my life in equally disturbing forms. I don’t want to overhear those past conversations either—but that’s one convenience store I dare not pass by.
Glenn Pemberton is a minister turned professor turned writer. After serving churches in Texas and Colorado, Glenn completed a Ph.D. (Old Testament). He then taught at Oklahoma Christian University before coming to Abilene Christian University in 2005, retiring as professor emeritus in 2017 due to a severe chronic pain. Glenn now spends his time writing for the church. Along with short essays he has published four books, including The God who Saves: An Introduction to the Message of the Old Testament (2015), and Hurting with God: Learning to Lament with the Psalms (2012). Glenn and his wife Dana continue to live in Abilene, Texas.