So I received the most unsavoury compliment today.

I was at work at the time, and my current job involves working in customer service. So, essentially, I smile at people, I talk to them, I help them out, and I’m super polite about the whole thing. And, considering politeness comes naturally to me, I find that aspect of the job fairly easy.

A customer comes in, and I offer her my services. Lots of “please”s and “thank you”s are passed between us; it’s all fairly ordinary.

And then the customer turns to leave.

And then she turns back.

“I just wanted to say thank you for saying ‘thank you’,” she says to me. “I just got into an argument with a girl working at another location, because she was so rude – she didn’t say ‘thank you’ or anything. And I know that I’m not supposed to say this because it’s racist or whatever, but I just wanted to say to her, ‘go back to your country, because here, we know how to be polite’.”

In a split second, a thousand potential responses went through my mind. The part of me that identifies as an intersectional feminist wanted to start a discussion with her right then and there, but the part of me that was acutely aware of the fact that I was currently working in customer service told me that I should just laugh and move on. Not wanting to betray my beliefs but also not wanting to lose my job, I wound up doing something that was between a polite smile and a grimace, and she walked right out of the store, going back to her day like nothing happened.

But her weird, back-handed compliment stayed with me throughout the day – particularly the part where she said, “I know I’m not supposed to say this”.

Well then, I thought, why did she say it if she knows she shouldn’t?

Did she expect me to agree with her? I mean, I am visibly white, so did she take that as the indicator that I would agree with her beliefs? That she would say something risque that I would clearly understand, and we would be united in our little moment of hatred? Was it meant to be a bonding experience for the both of us?

Because that isn’t what ended up happening. To me, what she said was about the equivalent of her turning around to look at me, giving a great, big, smelly fart, and then walking out of the store without a word of apology or understanding for what just happened.

And she had to know that that was a risk when she said it. She said, “I know I’m not supposed to say this”, which means that she was aware that it was a controversial statement that she was about to make and I may or may not agree with it.

Was I supposed to feel good about what she was saying? She did precede it with a compliment toward me, so maybe I was supposed to feel flattered at the expense of some other woman who I don’t even know. I’m supposed to take comfort in the knowledge that I, a white, North American girl, know how to say “thank you”, unlike those ‘awful’ immigrants. Except, I’ve never really been the sort to find my own confidence at the expense of other women.

And, as I have already stated, I don’t even know the woman who my customer was referring to. I don’t know her name, her background, where she works, or why she works there. I don’t know if she was having a busy morning, and thus forgot to say “thank you”. I don’t know if she intentionally avoided any “thank you”s because this customer was being overtly racist, demeaning, or dismissive toward her. I don’t know if her mom, her dad, her spouse, her three kids, and her new puppy just died in a horrible, fiery car accident, thus putting the word “thank you” out of her mind completely. I don’t know nearly enough about her to find comfort in the knowledge that I’m more polite than her. But, more importantly, this customer doesn’t know nearly enough about her to judge her, or an entire group of people, because of one missed “thank you”.

Or was the comment “I know I’m not supposed to say this” meant to serve an entirely different purpose, one that has absolutely nothing to do with me or the situation or even the woman from the other location? Maybe the comment was, very simply, intended to excuse the customer from what she was saying.

After all, she knew that what she was saying was racist – she couldn’t not know it. But she wanted to say it anyway, because she still believes it nonetheless. So how do you get away with saying awful, hateful, racist things about people? You precede it by acknowledging that what you are about to say is racist, of course.

She knew that what she was about to say was controversial, but she didn’t want to face the consequences of making a controversial statement. She wasn’t looking for a fair discussion or a debate about immigration. If she had been, then she wouldn’t have made the statement to someone who is literally paid to smile despite all pain and constantly remind themselves “the customer is always right”.

But the thing is, just because one acknowledges that what they are about to say is racist and hateful, that doesn’t make it any less racist or hateful. Had the wrong person heard what she said to me, then regardless of how she preceded her comment, she still would have succeeded in alienating and insulting someone who our society is already pretty good at making feel alienated and insulted.

There is a time and a place to discuss these matters, but that place is not a mall, and that time is not when the person you are talking to is working. These are matters that someone should sit down and discuss, in detail, with a wide group of people, coming from many different backgrounds. These are concerns that require research and reading and understanding. I am not saying that, if you believe something that is controversial like this, then you should never, ever voice your opinion, because sometimes, voicing your opinion is the best way to expand your understanding of the issue.

But if you are going to voice your opinion, then expect responses. Except discussion. Except disagreement, even, and accept that that’s okay. Because these aren’t simple matters, and we cannot expect simple responses.

If we reduce these matters to something simple, then we ignore whole sides of them. And, worse, we miss out on our chance to expand our minds when we don’t actually, genuinely discuss them. I wish that I could have had the opportunity to explain to that woman the potential harm that her comment could have on someone, because she still doesn’t know. The way she sees it, what she’s saying is merely something that people aren’t allowed to say because of crazy, over-the-top, politically correct social justice warriors (you know, people like me). She’s going to go out into the world, not understanding that what she’s saying is harmful, and she could make a good person feel extremely alienated from their own country and their fellow citizens with what she says.

So anytime that we precede a comment with “I know I’m not supposed to say this”, we need to take a moment to consider that there might be a reason why people get upset when we make statements like these. And if we don’t understand why people get upset, then we need to talk about it in a calm, non-confrontational sort of way, just so that we can understand. I’m not trying to call anyone wrong or evil or anything like that. All that I am trying to say is that, if people get upset when we make statements like these, then we need to treat these statements with a certain sort of weight and open-minded understanding. These are not the easy, closing statements that we make to just anyone.

Published by Ciara Hall