This week, waiting at a local hairdresser for my appointment, I had an unnerving experience.
Two women came in together and sat down. They were talking enthusiastically about the previous night’s State of the State address by Governor Lepage, pleased with how well he spoke and looking forward to some of his promises. At one point, one of the women said: “It’s too bad they won’t let him do what he wants. If they did, he’d get rid of all those Somalis.”
I was astounded that they would say such a thing, out loud and in a public place (though I was the only other person in the room). I felt I couldn’t let her comment pass, but was at a total loss for how to respond. I decided that, given the local importance of French-Canadian Catholic culture, a religious approach made sense.
I smiled and tried not to sound angry, saying: “You know, I’ve gotten to know some of the Somalis pretty well and have found them to be wonderful people. And I can’t help thinking that Jesus would be very unhappy to hear you talking like that.”
I don’t know what kind of response I expected. More accurately, I hadn’t thought it through well enough to have any expectation about a response. What I got was silence. Not only did they not make eye contact or respond to me, they stopped talking to each other. It was awkward and felt incomplete.
As I revisited the experience later in the day, I came to two conclusions. First, it was absolutely appropriate - even essential - for me to speak up. Silence in that setting serves as passive support, normalizing unacceptable behavior. Second, it would have been more likely to cause positive change if I had been able to engage them in a meaningful conversation about the issues, their concerns, and my values, so I need to develop better ways to respond.