Oh, Bother

“Was she bothering you, sir?”

The question made me a bit uneasy. “No, of course not,” I replied quickly. For the drive home and much of the evening, these two brief interactions dominated my thoughts. The word “bother” in particular stood out.

A little over a week ago, a woman – black appearing to be in her 30s – approached me in a grocery store parking lot carrying a gas can. She told me she had run out and needed a few dollars to get home. I uttered a quick “sure” and fished out a five from my wallet. The moment she turned away, a grocery cart attendant asked me “Was she bothering you, sir?”

The whole episode couldn’t have lasted longer than a minute, but I pondered it far longer.

How could her request bother me? Even if I thought she was being dishonest, I could simply decline which wouldn’t really be bothersome.

I’m not here to disparage a young cart attendant. For all I know he may have seen this routine a few times or perhaps he was just trying to do his job being mindful of the customer. He’s not what brought on the pondering. Rather it was the truth that struck me – It did bother me.

For people like me, it’s an automatic response.

People who ask for money on the street are lying. They won’t tell you the real reason they’re asking.

This response subtly reinforces my standing. Sure, I may have had some advantages, but my needs are met because I’ve been honest.

But the truth is . . .

I’ve never been poor.

I’m dishonest with my intentions regularly.

I’m among the most privileged people in the history of humanity. White. Educated. American. Middle class parents. Protestant. Male. Straight. Employed. Insured.

Whether this woman was telling the truth or not, I have never walked in her shoes. It’s uncomfortable to ask for money from anyone – especially so without some sort of relational context. Whatever the reason, she’s in some sort of desperate circumstance.

And that is what bothered me. I don’t want to face reality, and this minute long interaction confronted me with it. I want to believe that everyone has the same access that I do. I want to believe that I am where I am because I’ve made good decisions and worked hard and demonstrated my trustworthiness.

As with all lies we believe, there’s some truth in it; it’s just an incomplete truth.

It’s incomplete because if I did make a poor decision (and I’ve made a fair number), there’s a lot I could fall back on. It wouldn’t ruin me. I doubt that’s the case with this woman.

So what am I getting at?

Especially for those of us who are the beneficiaries of privilege, we must challenge the automatic prejudicial narratives. Take a moment; remember that we don’t have the full picture; consider that we might be wrong; and strive for compassion. That’s the only way we can make a more equitable tomorrow.

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