Something humbling happened at Trader Joe’s yesterday.
When I got in the checkout line, there was no one in front of me—just the customer being rung up. Only when it was my turn did I realize that I was standing on the wrong side of the checkout stand; instead of taking my place behind the customer, I was standing next to the cashier.
I shook my head and relocated myself, puzzled that I would make such a weird mistake. Then I realized something. The cashier was white. The customer was Black. Is that why I mindlessly got in line behind the white lady—because I assumed she was the one being waited on?
Here’s the thing: I don’t know.
My good friends will tell you that I am a dramatically unobservant person. (Odd for someone with an eagle eye for typos, yet true; I joke that my attention is focused on deeper realities.) In this case, however, I ignored a stunning array of visual data, starting with the fact that I was basically standing behind the cash register instead of in front of it. The cashier was wearing a TJ’s vest and nametag, for pity’s sake. And the customer’s grown daughter joined her, called her mom, and struck up a conversation, leading me to muse only that it was unusual for someone to visit her mother at work in this job. (Years ago, at a rest stop on a road trip, I walked into the men’s room and mused only that it was unusual for the ladies’ room to have urinals. I’m telling you—I can be dense!)
I say all this neither to excuse nor condemn myself. It is possible that I was just distracted and clueless. But it is also possible that my implicit bias was showing—that, glancing at two women in a suburban grocery store, I assumed that the white one was being served and the Black one doing the serving. If that’s what was happening in my brain, it saddens me. Profoundly.
We are in the home stretch of the Lenten season, when I always encourage people to be on the lookout for God’s daily invitations to prayer, sacrifice, and generosity. I think I need to add one more invitation to the list: repentance. (This is where the Ignatian daily Examen can be helpful.)
Noticing the negative movements in our hearts is humbling (from the Latin root humus, meaning “earth”). Being humbled recalls us to our earthy origins, our limitations, and our need for one another and for God. In this season of repentance, I pray that God will continue to open my eyes and—like a good gardener—help me uproot implicit bias from my being, one weed at a time.