At the supermarket checkout, three women clustered in front me, surrounded by kids. The women were friends or family members—and they were on a budget. One went to pay for her groceries, using her Pennsylvania Access EBT card. Food stamps. It was declined.
The machine reported that the PIN number was wrong. She tried again, and was declined. A third time: declined.
The last failure locked her card for 24 hours, and she couldn't pay for her food.
"It must be the wrong PIN number," the cashier said. The woman protested, but the cashier was having none of it, or her now-useless card. The other two women with her offered to get her food using their own EBT cards—they had some cash, but would need it for the jitney home.
Both cards were declined. Again, the device reported that their PIN numbers were incorrect. They argued with the cashier—"We know our PIN numbers!"— but she insisted that they were at fault. Perhaps they don't have the available funds on their cards?
All their cards now locked, they set about figuring out what food to put back, so they could pay cash and still get a ride home. They pulled out stuff for the adults, leaving the food for the children.
The rest of us in line offered to pay. It turned out to be just a few bucks. Problem solved. They thanked us, got their stuff together, and headed off.
I'm not telling you this story to give a warm fuzzy about the good Samaritans of Giant Eagle. I am telling it because of what happened next, after my stuff was checked out.
“I hate to say it,” the cashier said, which means she didn't hate to say it at all, “but people like that just don't keep track of their money. They think they have all of it on their cards, but they just don't budget well.”
As I went to pay, I took out my card and entered my PIN.
“My card was declined. It says I'm not using the right PIN.”
She looked at me blankly for a moment. Then she said this:
Hooray for manager.
Three black moms on food stamps insisting there was a problem with the machine: bullshitters to be argued with until they leave. Ms. Johannsen with a credit card, swiped with fingers white as the driven snow: immediate service from management.
We roll our eyes at the revealing phrase, "I'm not a racist, but...", and it seems to fit this situation.
But, just this time, let's take it at its word. The checkout lady, in a busy store, under pressure and confronted with a stuck line, wasn't a "racist"—she just grabbed at what seemed the simplest, fastest answer to an incredibly stressful problem. We don't have to let it define us. We just have to accept that racism often works through us, messing with our heads, to make us stupid. It blinds the best of us to the things we do in its service.