On April 12, 2018, two black men, Donte Robinson and Rashon Nelson, walked into the Starbucks at 18th and Spruce streets in Philadelphia to talk business with a friend. You know the rest of the story: How the cafe manager tried to eject them because they didn’t buy anything and wanted to use the bathroom, they refused to leave, and they were arrested.
This event set off a chain reaction that reverberated around the world and led Starbucks to close 8,000 stores in May for anti-bias training of 175,000 employees.
A few days after the event, I was getting ready to bicycle home after a workout at a downtown Portland gym. Often, a guy from the class would join me. He was there that day, and, in casual conversation, the Starbucks incident came up.
What happened next left me shaken. Hardly a day goes by that I don’t think about it.
The N-word rears its ugly head
The guy, an outspoken Donald Trump supporter, turned to me with fire in his eyes. “You know why this happened, don’t you?” he said. “F!@#$#$ N!@@#$%.”
That’s right. The N-word. Accented with the F-bomb.
I was stunned. Thoughts of what to say raced through my head, but no words left my mouth. I looked at him as though I’d seen Dr. Jekyll turn into Mr. Hyde.
When he saw that I was dumbfounded, he said, “That’s okay. You can’t say that. But I can.”
Meaning that he, like Trump, could utter whatever came into his mind, political correctness, hate speech or morality be damned.
I rode home in stony silence as I mulled my options.
Every day after the event, I replayed it constantly in my mind. What I should have said. What I should say now. Call him out as a racist? Refuse to have anything to do with him? Tell other people so they would know who he really is?
I never did confront him. He’s a big guy, and I am not a fan of conflict and the possibility of violence. So I avoided him. If I saw him and he said hello, I said hello back. But I always find a new reason to be elsewhere when it comes to riding home. Finally, he has stopped asking.
Can you be a nice racist?
But here’s the thing. He’s outwardly a nice guy. He’s polite to people in the gym. Friendly. Funny. People seem to like him. He claims to be religious and to volunteer at his church. I’ve seen him around people of color and gay people and have never noticed any bad behavior, malice or intent on his part.
Of course, I don’t know what he does in his private time. For all I know, he dons a hood and marches in Klan rallies. But likely not.
So is he a racist because he talks like one? Yes, I think he is a racist. I believe that what he said to me revealed what lies in his heart, and it’s racism. The Oxford English Dictionary defines racism as “a belief that one’s own racial or ethnic group is superior, or that other such groups represent a threat to one's cultural identity, racial integrity, or economic well-being.” Using the N-word is racism in action.
I hope he never acts on that hatred, but his words themselves are daggers. And while voting for Trump does not make one a racist, it is a vote for a man who regularly stokes race hatred and division.
Is this Trump supporter a bad person? I don’t think so. If writing and reading fiction has taught me anything, it is that human beings have a capacity for complexity. We can say bad things and do good things. We can say good things and do bad things.
Am I a racist because I didn’t confront him? I don’t want to believe I am. But I have been the beneficiary of white privilege and systemic racism. I don’t know what it is to have a black body and to deal with the pain, humiliation and violence that many or most black people, especially black men, face every day in the United States.
Will racism ever die?
I know this. The N-word is one of the most hateful words in the English language. I will never use it. And I hope if anyone—including the Trump supporter—uses it in front of me again, I will have the courage to confront this hate speech immediately.
Racism—along with all the other isms that pit us against each other—is an ugly side of humanity. I don’t suspect it will completely die out as long as we fear the Other. But I hope against my better judgment that it will.