The small comfort of chocolate

Chocolate can be the gift we choose to give to say sorry or to offer comfort or thanks.

I chose it today for the staff on the checkout at the supermarket as – albeit small – compensation for the racist abuse they suffer from customers. Usually it is sneaky abuse, bullying in effect, as they know the staff member must remain polite or risk losing their job. ‘The customer is always right’. Except when they are not right.

Yesterday, as I packed my groceries, I was saddened to overhear a checkout operator quietly telling a supervisor that a customer had said to her, “You are not welcome here”. She seemed embarrassed to have to report the incident; her face was flushed above her mask.

How much worse it must feel not to be able to stand up for yourself when a deliberately hurtful lie is directed at you. Does reporting it make you feel better, or worse? What could the supervisor do anyway, after the event?

I wrote a letter to the management and staff of the supermarket to express my dismay and sympathy. I suggested a standard response to such attacks by customers could be used such as, “We are sorry you feel that way. We hope you will be kinder to our staff in the future.” This could be a polite way of showing that the whole work place is united in not tolerating racism (by using ‘we’) and would call out the customer for their bad behaviour (they had not been kind). It could help the staff member to feel that they had stood up to the bully without risking their job – and by being the better person.

If I had overheard the hurtful remark, I would have been less restrained, I imagine – but that would not change anything or be helpful. However, I bet the customer spoke for only the checkout operator to hear. (I picture the offending customer going home to listen to more of the talk-back radio which ‘justifies’ their cruelty, and never pausing to consider whether or not they are making a useful contribution to society.)

In the multi-cultural school where I worked (54 different countries of origin in one count), we valued cultural – and other – diversity and were as vigilant as we could be to ensure the work place was safe for staff and students. It was a somewhat more closed environment than a supermarket, however. It shocked me how our students regularly suffered racist abuse on the street.

There’s no amount of chocolate to comfort for that.