Onions and Unintentional Racism
I know, it’s a strange title, but I wasn’t sure how else to sum up our visit to the grocery store today.
Carlos and I walked through the produce section as I checked my list.
“I need onions,” I said.
Carlos steered the cart and followed me to the onions.
“Whoa!” I said, when I came to the onions, because they were the biggest onions I’d ever seen.
“Those are huge,” Carlos said.
“Do you think they’re like, genetically modified onions or something?” I joked, picking one up.
“I don’t know. One onion is enough for a whole week.”
“Hey, quick, take a picture of it,” I said, holding it up.
Carlos obliged without question because he’s become accustomed to my odd photo requests over the years. Carlos snapped the photo and then that’s when everything went downhill.
A middle-aged blond woman standing nearby smiled at us. Her blond child sat in the cart and several more stood behind her.
“Where are you from?” the woman asked, turning her attention to Carlos, still smiling.
I glared at her while setting the onion down. Carlos shuffled uncomfortably as he put his cellphone back in his pocket.
“El Salvador,” he answered.
“You must not have onions that big there, huh?” the woman said in a voice that reminded me of a Kindergarten teacher speaking to one of her 5 year old students. She wasn’t trying to be insulting… She wasn’t trying to be.
“Um, no, not really,” Carlos said, shifting his eyes to make eye contact with me ever so briefly. Carlos and I didn’t need words, didn’t need to speak, to know we were thinking the same thing.
I bit my tongue, resisted the urge to ask the woman where she was from. I wanted to tell her that Carlos had lived in the United States for 15 years now, that he’s an American Citizen, not some onion-photographing foreign tourist. I wanted to lob one of the onions at her head but she was oblivious to her white privilege, her unintentional racism, how she had made Carlos feel “other” … She didn’t realize that if another white person had been taking a photo in the grocery store she would not have asked or even wondered where they are from.
“We just went to Thailand. We love anything international!” the woman exclaimed.
The awkwardness was unbearable.
I wondered in my head how she would have reacted if I blurted out something equally as random. “Tea and crumpets are amazing!” is what I wanted to say. I bit my tongue harder.
“That’s nice?” Carlos said, unsure, as was I, what she expected us to respond.
I looped my arm through Carlos’s, forced myself to smile at the woman and we walked away. I kept quiet because I still don’t know how to explain white privilege to other white people.