Last night I was getting my mail at the communal mailbox. I gathered my bills, nodding to a young mother strolling with her baby and talking animatedly on her phone and smiling at a short woman about my age wearing a Southern Girls Love Jesus t-shirt.
“Do you think I should call 911?” she asks me in a hushed tone, pulling out her Iphone.
“What happened?” I ask, my eyes immediately darting to the pool, dreading the thought of a drowned child. I know CPR. I should go over there.
“Her,” she says gesturing to the young mother.
She looks ok to me although her conversation is increasingly animated. I step closer to make sure the baby isn’t sucking on roach poison or something. She is snoring softly.
I am still waiting to deal with this emergency situation to the best of my ability. I’m a life guard. And a Girl Scout. But I’m stumped, and Southern Jesus Girl begins to dial.
“Wait,” I say. “What is it?”
My neighbor looks at me like I have two heads and lowers her voice to a whisper. “She’s one of them. Like the Muslims?” She says MOOOSlums, and I just stare at her.
I squinted at the blond woman wearing shorts and tevas as she absently rocks the stroller while she talks. Southern Jesus Girl has lost me. But I’m glad I don’t have to do CPR. I always worry someone will throw up in my mouth. Or die. Or I’ll forget to sing Stayin’ Alive in my head to keep the rhythm and will sing Another One Bites the Dust instead, which is supposed to also be the right rhythm , but that has to be bad juju.
“Lisssten,” she hisses.
“Because she is speaking….?” I say finally. This is the best guess I have.
“Yes,” she says, pleased with me. “Arabic!” She finally breaks out into actual sentences which go something like “sharia law bombs report suspicious behavior can’t be too careful raghead Allah false prophet bomb.”
“But that’s Russian,” I interrupt.
“Are you sure? How do you know it’s Russian?”
Because I am not an idiot? Because I have a master’s degree in linguistics? Because I watch Orange is the New Black? Mostly it’s the not an idiot thing. I really have nothing to say at this point, but she looks like she’s going to actually call this time.
“Excuse me,” I say to the Mom. “Excuse me.”
She looks up from her phone and gives me a cold stare for interrupting her international rate phone call.
“What language are you speaking?”
“Russian,” she says with a perfect Mississippi drawl and a look that almost melts my eyebrows. She whirls her stroller around, turns her back to me and walks away.
Southern Jesus Girl puts her phone away with relief. I glare at her and walk away in the footsteps of my Russian neighbor.
I am not at all pleased with how I handled this situation. Not only did I manage to piss two people off, but I did nothing to address the fact that Southern Jesus Girl thinks that speaking Arabic is a criminal offense. It is not lost on me that it was not so long ago that Russian speakers probably got the cops called on them for overhead conversations. Our xenophobia is legendary. And enduring. But this young mother was let off the hook. Because of the collapse of the Soviet Union, presumably.
While I am confident I would have come to the aid of an Arabic speaker as well, I would have needed to come up with a better tactic than pointing out that the language in question was currently not spoken by our enemies. Which is really not the point.
But I did not. I did not take the opportunity to try to educate Southern Jesus Girl. I was hot. I was tired. I was still thinking about the BeeGees. This actually happens to me more than you might think. Somebody mentions Barry Gibb, and I’m just gone, for hours sometimes. What were we talking about?
But it was my responsibility to say something because I know better. It’s as simple as that. Whether it’s a racist joke, religious persecution, or just plain ignorance that I face at the mail box, I need to speak up. I need to say out loud that this person you are threatened by is just a person. She is probably tired, and the baby has cried all day, and now she is talking to her mother about sleep training. And if she had been speaking Arabic instead of Russian, all these things would still be true. I need to say that Arabic speakers, that Muslims, are our neighbors. They are unlikely to be terrorists. They just want to get their mail. If I don’t speak up, then who will?
I’m just not that confrontational of a person. Sometimes I let people be wrong on the internet. But I am a middle aged white woman with all the privilege and protection that brings. Maybe I need to practice being uncomfortable. Enough. This happens too often for me to claim I was caught off guard. Saying nothing accomplishes nothing. I can’t address my neighbors’ bigotry when they are standing at the voting booth, thinking Trump’s wall is a good idea. I can’t complain they didn’t know any better when I chose to look the other way instead of taking a stand at the mailbox.
Life’s going nowhere. Somebody help me. Somebody help me, yeah.