Several years ago I visited a Social Security office to ask for help in understanding a letter I’d received regarding my daughter’s disability benefits.
My encounter with the representative–an individual from a race other than my own–lasted less than six minutes. To this day, I do not know why she behaved the way she did. I cannot tell her side of the story. I can only tell mine.
When I showed her the paragraph that confused me, she immediately tossed her pencil, signed heavily and asked why I never learned to read. I was completely taken aback by her behavior and, of course, I felt intimidated, because after all, to me she was the Government. I opened my mouth to say that I could read, but was having problems with the language–the Government lingo. Before I could get the words out, she shook her head and mumbled something about “white people.”
Fighting tears, I mustered the courage to ask why she was being so hateful. Without hesitation, she told me that all white people thought all people of color were stupid when, in reality, white people were the stupid ones. They couldn’t even read.
Not wanting her to see me cry, I immediately stood up, covered my face with my hands and left the room. As I was leaving the building, another Government employee–also from a race other than my own–noticed I was shaken and teary-eyed. She asked if she could help. The tenderness in her voice overwhelmed me. I began to sob. After being so completely mistreated and misjudged, I needed her kindness more than ever.
She reached out to me–a stranger–and touched my heart in a way I’d never experienced before. I showed her the letter and told her about the treatment I’d received. She said that the representative’s shameful behavior was her problem, not mine. I’ll never forget the positive impact she made on me; the absolute goodness she brought into my day.
For me, it had been a surreal experience. Someone from a race other than my own, affecting me in such a negative way that I felt frightened and helpless and, moments later, a member from that same race, having the complete opposite effect.
And yes! This good woman did help me understand the letter I’d received, but far more importantly, she brought to light something I’d always believed about the human heart. Empathy, compassion, sympathy for others–has nothing to do with race, gender or creed.
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