Like many people, I occasionally wear shirts or tops with words on them. I enjoy them. Especially when I’m relaxed after work or on the weekends when the corporate uniform is put to rest for a bit. And I, like many people, usually know the meaning of those words. In fact, I recall my mother once telling me to always know what the words and brands that I wear mean and stand for. I think any mother has likely told their child that. I know that I have explained many a shirt to my daughter before I put it on her and made certain that she could tell anyone what the words mean that she has on the front or back of her shirt.
This is basic. It’s something you do not need an advance degree to do.
So recently, as my daughter and I were enjoying lunch at the local deli, I was filling her cup up at the soda fountain with lemonade. A woman asked me a question that more than caught me off guard. I was wearing a shirt with these words on the front: Ça va? Mind you, I was leaning in to get the lemonade, and she was to my immediate left, so she could only see the back of the shirt which says, “Tres bien merçi.” To anyone with a scant knowledge of languages or access to Google translate, you know that this is French and means (front of shirt) “How’s it going?” (back of shirt) “Very well, thanks.”
Be that as it may, the woman asked me, rather pointedly, “Do you know what your shirt says?”
Mind you, without even a smile she said this–not that it would make a sliver of difference. At first, I thought, maybe she wasn’t talking to me. So I looked her in her eyes, and yes, her eyes were piercing at me as I finished dispensing the Minute Maid into my daughter’s cup.
This woman was preparing to give me an unsolicited French lesson right in the middle of Jason’s Deli.
Black greeks would call this “charging you up.” It’s what you do to someone you don’t know to get them to prove that they really are a member of your sorority or fraternity. You do this to people you doubt or to neophytes.
I was being charged up by a complete stranger–to see if I was worthy of the shirt on my back.
So with all the polite firmness and with a chuckle of irony, I said, “Of course I know what my own shirt says. I’m wearing it.”
She did not relent.
“Do you know French?” Now, the italics I use here are purposeful, because this was the emphasis she gave the word, and it really does change the meaning when the inflection is in place exactly wear she put it.
Amazed that she was still speaking to me and pursuing this line of conversation, something warmed up inside of me, and not in an endearing way. They were words, and they weren’t in English.
I looked her dead in her eye and responded, “Je parle un peu de français.” Insert no smile.
Now… this was not the time to rattle off the near decade of French I took in high school and college. This was not the time to spout off my resume for the past 5 years where diversity, inclusion, equity and culture have literally been my business and have become an expertise. This was not the time for me to tell her to take her unenlightened self to the nearest freeway north to Oklahoma so she could see my face on the billboards of my place of higher education at least 5 times by the time she made it to Frisco, Texas.
This was not the time to use that kind of French. I had my daughter in tow.
Did she not know that there are plenty of native-French-speaking people who look just like me from around the globe and just down Interstate 10 and parts of North Carolina too? Did she not know that you don’t have to be a native speaker of any language and still know or speak it?
Would her mind be blown if I started singing to her in Latin?
I grabbed my daughter by the hand, and we found our seats.
I have never seethed over a salad in this way before.
Who did she think she was? She thought she knew something that I didn’t based on what she witnessed in a split second of seeing me.
…that I had no idea what the words meant that were pressed onto my shirt, likely in China, that I picked up off a sales rack in Bloomingdales.
I had a good mind to really disturb her lunch.
Maybe it was the Diet Dr. Pepper. Perhaps it was Jesus, but I decided instead to make it a learning moment for the woman and for my daughter Joni. Yes, that woman needed to see that I am indeed the educated woman that she didn’t mistake me for, and Joni needed to see how to confront bias with the class, grace and razor sharpness a situation like this calls for.
We finished our lunch, and after we got free ice cream on the way out. I decided to step toward the woman’s table. Not too close, but not too far either.
“Ma’am,” I said directly and firmly, but in a normal tone. “I have an English lesson for you. I need you to look up the word microagression. Look up the word today, because that will help you understand why I did not take kindly to your approach to me. Do you understand?”
The woman, mouth full of sandwich said, “I’m sorry.”
I grabbed Joni’s hand, and we left the restaurant.
Inside the car, Joni received her first basic lesson on bias (unconscious or not), how people will judge you based only on what you look like and assume that there are things that you just naturally don’t know…as well as the proper way to “gather” unenlightened, ignorant people up in public places while maintaining one’s dignity, but addressing the problem head on.
She also learned a little French along the way.
Joni’s response, “Got it.”