Public Restrooms, Toothbrushes and Speaking Up
“I’m sorry; we don’t have public restrooms here.” Those were the first words the hostess said to my colleague when he arrived late to meet me and others at the restaurant. Did the hostess say this to my colleague because his skin is black?
“It’s okay—you can put the toothbrush in your shopping basket. We’re supposed to put these behind the counter until you’re ready to check out, but I trust you.” That’s what the drugstore clerk said to me when I asked her to unlock an electric toothbrush from the shelf. Did the clerk say this to me because my skin is white?
I’ve been thinking a lot lately about speaking up when someone says or does something that seems to be rooted in the assumptions we make about people based on the color of their skin. The Wisconsin State Public Defender’s Office (WI SPD) has done a lot of really great work the past two years to help staff become more comfortable talking generally about race. Up next is guidance and support to give staff the confidence to speak up when they witness a racial injustice.
A few recent things have inspired some confidence within me. I share them here with the hope these things will do the same for others.
One is a short article written by Rachel Krinsky, the CEO of the YWCA of Madison, Wisconsin. In her article, How White People Can Be Part of the Solution, Krinsky offers five specific things white people can do to help in the fight for racial justice. I especially like her advice to start seeing privilege. I think privilege is what put the toothbrush in my shopping basket instead of behind the counter.
Another is what Seattle, WA criminal defense lawyer Jeff Robinson said in November 2013 when he spoke to hundreds of lawyers at the WI SPD’s Annual Criminal Defense Conference. When it comes to speaking up about racial injustice, he said “we need to be comfortable with being uncomfortable.”
Finally, my law school friend, who started a new job a couple of weeks ago, told me the other day how during her very first week at the new job, her colleague made a derogatory remark about a man of color. Despite being new to the organization, my friend told her colleague that his remark was “not okay.”
I didn’t speak up at the restaurant or at the drugstore. But when something happens or is said next time—and I am quite sure there will be a next time in both my public defender life and my personal life—I will think about what Rachel Krinsky and Jeff Robinson said and what my law school friend did and then I will absolutely speak up.