Earlier today, I was doing a bit of food shopping at the local market. There was quite a wait in the checkout line and I was very tired.
There was a woman in front of me who had a six-pack of soda and two bottles of water. She had her items on the conveyer belt in such a way that there was space in front of her groceries; in other words, she hadn’t moved them to the front, and there wasn’t enough room for all of my groceries or for anyone else’s groceries on the conveyer belt. There were people behind me who were waiting to put their stuff on the belt, and she was completely oblivious to everyone and their need to use the space.
I like to get my items out of my cart all at once if I can, because going back and forth from the cart to the conveyer belt inflames some of my vestibular issues and can make me a bit dizzy. I was also quite tired from standing for so long, and I was anxious to get my stuff on the belt so that I could just hang onto the shopping cart. So I gently pushed the divider against her things to move them up a bit (as people often do in these situations) and in so doing, I accidentally knocked over a couple of her soda cans.
I was a bit embarrassed, and I apologized for knocking over the cans. She looked at me like I’d just committed some sort of crime. She didn’t accept my apology and she didn’t say a word.
I thought, “Okay, whatever,” and I figured we were done.
A full two minutes later, after she had paid for her groceries, she turned around and got in my face and said, “You know, it wasn’t necessary to touch my stuff like that. That was really wrong. Don’t ever do that again.”
It was as though she’d just come out of a self-assertiveness class and decided to practice on me. Bear in mind that I’d already seen my mistake AND APOLOGIZED.
I really wouldn’t have minded if she’d said, “You know, I have a hard time with people touching my stuff. Could you not do that?” I would have said, “Yeah, I hear you. My apologies.”
I really wouldn’t have minded if she’d said, “Next time, could you ask?” I would have said, “I’ll do my best. I have trouble with my hearing and it’s hard for me to talk in situations like this.”
But when people start using the pronoun You instead of I, and start telling me what is Necessary, and get otherwise self-righteous and in my face — I really can’t tolerate that crap.
She didn’t have an ounce of consideration for the people behind her and what their needs might be.
It didn’t occur to her that perhaps I had been waiting for several minutes for her to wake up to the presence of other people.
She had made a decision about what was Necessary and Not Necessary, when she had no clue about the state of my body and what was necessary FOR ME.
She didn’t know that my auditory processing issues makes it difficult for me to initiate conversations with anyone in a sound-rich environment. She didn’t know that I instinctively take the path of least resistance and do not talk in a situation like that because it is painful and exhausting. She didn’t know that my vestibular issues make it very difficult for me to move things back and forth. She didn’t know that my hip was hurting and I just wanted to get my stuff out of the basket so that I could hang onto it.
But she made a decision about what was Necessary, as though it were some sort of objective fact, as though what is Necessary for one person is Necessary for everyone else. She didn’t stop to think that maybe she didn’t know the first thing about me and shouldn’t be telling me what’s what. It didn’t even occur to her.
THAT’S privilege, folks. She became the authority on what was Right and Necessary in that situation without stopping to consider that other people might be having a whole other experience of the world.
For once, words did not fail me. I was pissed, and somehow, being pissed help me break through my shyness, my exhaustion, my resistance, and my general shock. I said in a very loud voice, and it took all the energy I could muster:
“Excuse me, but YOU could have been paying attention to where YOUR things were on the conveyer belt and moved them for MY convenience.”
Of course, she ignored me, turned her back as I was talking, and walked away. And no one else said a word. I was shaking with anger and embarrassment. I hate confronting people in public like that, particularly strangers. But I’m getting really, really sick of people assuming that their experience is just like everyone else’s. I’m sick of people assuming that everyone is able-bodied, that everyone can talk on demand, that everyone can move things without getting dizzy, that everyone can stand up without holding onto something, and that everyone somehow owes them space and consideration and they don’t owe anyone a goddamned thing. I’m sick of the ignorance, of the privilege, and of the utter lack of empathetic imagination.
And most of all, I’m sick of people getting in my face over nonsense like who gets to go through a door first or their soda cans falling over — like a goddamned soda can falling over is more important than the fact that I don’t fall over.
So I held my space. And I came home shaking. But I did it. It was a small thing, but it was also huge.
© 2013 by Rachel Cohen-Rottenberg