Serena Williams Will Not Be Silent

So, I was in Walmart yesterday to buy my semi-regular infusion of bottled water and coffee Haagen Dazs. I was next in line when a manager approached along with a young lady presumably there to replace the young lady acting as cashier. There was a discussion. I wasn’t close enough to hear what was said, but the woman ahead of me in line said, “If somebody told me to take a break I’d be like, bye!”

Her tone and facial expression sent my antennae up. Both suggested the young cashier was silly to try and refuse the manager’s offer. Then she said something about working 13-hour 3rd shift. She gathered her bags and left soon after, and when it was my turn I waited briefly while the cashiers switched places. I asked, what was the hubbub?

The replacement cashier told me the manager is always giving them breaks too early. The cashier who left had only been on duty an hour. It was around 5 pm then. I asked, what time do you get off? She said, “midnight, and they’ll give us a break, then tell us to take lunch right after.”

I was surprised. “So, you basically have to work like six hours with no break because you’re taking breaks too early in your shift.”

Exactly, she answered.

I knew my Spidey senses were tingling for a reason. The girls were protesting mistreatment on the job, and this customer, who had no context at all, butted in to offer her $.02.

As she rang up my cases of water the cashier told me she was looking for another job but was trying to hang in there until she graduated. I didn’t have much time, but I did my best to encourage her. I told her she was doing great. To keep her performance high as a matter of pride, but to keep looking for a job, and to keep the end goal in mind. I quickly said a few other things, and she was smiling when I left her.

I thought about that scenario again last night as I was washing up for bed, and it pissed me off. Some people feel so entitled to offer their unsolicited commentary. They erroneously believe the party on the other end either should hear it, needs to hear it, or has no choice but to listen, and they’re gonna say their piece whether it makes sense and is appropriate or not.

That happens a lot between older and younger people, which makes some sense as there is the wisdom quotient to consider. But it also happens a lot between men and women – here I refer to the dreaded mansplaining – and I’ve seen it happen quite a bit between other races and black people. It’s happened to me several times. Being made to suffer a strangers need to educate and/or interfere, ick. Even when it’s not happening to me that kind of retarded patronage never fails to raise my eyebrows.

The ridiculous part is, it’s usually a stranger. A friend, a peer, even an acquaintance you could listen to with some equanimity. But when a stranger presumes to correct you in public in front of other people for some presumed infraction. Listen. That’s trigger central. I’ve felt morally obligated to check more than one person in the quietest, most detailed, most formal language you can imagine.

That white customer, the one who apparently worked 13 hour shifts and thought that meant something to a Walmart cashier, felt she had the right to obliquely criticize those young black girls who were quietly protesting something related to their work environment. I don’t know what her motivation was. But I know she had no context for her commentary – how could she? She didn’t know them – and she was rude.

It reminded me of the situation Serena Williams faced with Carlos Ramos, the now infamous chair umpire who said she was cheating during the recent U.S. Open. She protested, had some back and forth with Ramos in the course of defending herself, and was fined $10,000 for it.

I didn’t watch the entire game. I’ve only seen a few clips here and there on social media. But in those clips I looked closely at Ramos face when Williams was talking to him. He looked like he was holding a mouth full of shit. If he could have, I think he’d have burned her to a crisp shooting lasers from his eyes. Why? Well, this is just my supposition, but I believe his anger came from her daring to talk back. To question him and correct him, and to not just quietly accept what he wanted her to have.

I’ve seen it before on more than one male face. That genuine surprise at being questioned rather than meekly accepted. That surprise often quickly turns to anger, especially these days with so many men feeling the burn for sexist behavior and being punished for it.

I can’t help but wonder, when is it right to speak up, and when is it best to be silent?

In the case of Serena Williams, I think she should strategically speak up. It’s seriously unfortunate that in this case her opportunity to speak out against sexism overshadowed Naomi Osaka’s win, but she has the proven legacy, the expansive platform, and the established belief system to make a definitive statement before the world. It also helps that she could safely toss $10K worth of hundreds into the air to show her contempt for that fine and Ramos allegedly sexist behavior and not break a sweat. But those girls working in the checkout line at Walmart don’t have it so easy.

In her 1937 classic “Their Eyes Were Watching God,” author Zora Neale Hurston said, “black women are the mules of the world.” Hurston died in 1960, but that quote still has incredibly sharp teeth.

We need to have more respect for one another as humans. But the need for immediacy that has permeated society thanks to technology and the media-driven culture in which we currently find ourselves has done something to short circuit people’s ability to hold their tongue. Maybe it’s always been like this. Maybe it’s the invention of anonymous comment streams. Maybe I just notice things more now because it’s my job. But it’s not right. Let’s check our privilege, people.

I’ve learned to curb my tongue. To not say the first thing that comes to mind. To consider my words based on the situation, the necessity and the other participants who may be affected or harmed by them. I did it yesterday in Walmart. I literally opened my mouth to tell 3rd shift to shut it, and I had a few choice comments for her, but I curbed myself. I thought, you don’t know the full story, and you don’t need to discomfit the other people in line, nor potentially upset these young girls who have to work here.

I’m also very conscious of creating scenes. I talk to my image consulting clients about this all the time. You never know who’s watching. You have to pick your battles. Everything does not deserve a response.

As it turns out, my suspicions were correct in this case. Those young girls were protesting ill treatment on the job. I think I would have been right to defend them, just as 3rd shift felt perfectly right to defend the white manager whose break-giving capabilities we have issue with. And while it would have been momentarily satisfying to tell 3rd shift to shut up, in the end, I did what I could to raise a young black woman’s spirits and encourage her after the fact. I think I made the right choice.

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