During my lunch break today, I found myself speed-walking through a gray, cold Portland to the post office to mail some paperwork. I cannot emphasize enough how much I loathe the post office. There are about 400 different ways to send a letter or package, each one requiring a different envelope/box and label, and if somehow you manage to be thick enough to pick the wrong one, prepare to belittled until you feel like the most worthless creature on the planet. How could you possibly not have memorized every single speed by which you can mail a letter and what the envelope looks like to do so? I never leave the post office not feeling like a complete fool. I felt the dread and anxiety clawing at my insides the entire walk there. How could I be a college graduate and be totally incompetent when it came to trying to mail a freaking letter? No doubt I would find some way to completely botch the entire thing and watch my self-esteem be annihilated by the US Postal Service–again.
Sure enough, when I stepped up to the counter, I had picked the wrong envelope. I was right that to overnight something you couldn’t use priority, but apparently you couldn’t use the one I had in my hands either. Obviously. The man behind the counter, a middle aged guy who looked a little like Robert DeNiro (Are you allowed to tell someone that?) pointed me in the right direction after I had made a few self-deprecating remarks that masked the complete and total inadequacy that was making itself right at home in the pit of my stomach. I filled out the corresponding label and got back in line, which had somehow tripled in size since I entered. A few spots ahead of me in line was a man trying to mail a money order. I guessed he was a couple years older than I was and appeared to be one of Portland’s many Somalian immigrants. It was pretty clear from the bits of the conversation I could hear between him and Robert DeNiro that his English was spotty at best. I was a native speaker and could barely get through mailing a letter with my pride intact. I couldn’t even imagine what an epic rollercoaster through hell this must have been in a second language.
After a few minutes it appeared that the money order man had made some kind of error and left the line to amend his envelope, and it was then my turn. I stepped up to the counter and presented my envelope, sheepishly muttering that I hoped I had it right this time. After it was confirmed that I had and a tiny sliver of dignity was returned to me, Robert DeNiro began to process my order. From behind me, money order man seemed to be still having trouble figuring out how to properly address his envelope and asked a clarifying question. Immediately Robert DeNiro snapped. “I’ve explained this to you four times,” he practically growled. “Put the addressee on the right. Your address goes in the upper lefthand corner. No.” Huge, frustrated sigh. “On the LEFT.” Several times during the next few sentences he became so exasperated with money order man that he broke off mid-sentence. He eventually called in some back up in the form of a co-worker to deal with this horrific inconvenience. “Can you explain this to him? I’ve done it six times. Seriously.” As if this wasn’t enough, Robert DeNiro then looks at me as if he and I are some kind of conspirators and whispers “You’ve got to be kidding me.” Almost too shocked to know what to do I managed to spit out “I messed it up too. It’s really confusing.” Despite the fact that money order man’s confusion was certainly no more infuriating than mine, Robert DeNiro shook his head. “No no, you’re fine.”
After I’d paid, I wanted to go over to money order man and let him know that the post office was one of Dante’s lesser-known circles of hell and that what had just happened was so beyond okay that I no longer felt like eating my lunch, but I was so flustered and shocked by the entire situation that my gut instincts had me busting out of there without another word.
Though I’m sure it has happened countless times and in countless ways for my entire life, this was a glaring, punch-me-in-the-face reminder of the fact that I was a young white female, and of the kind of treatment some people feel that merits. Usually when I come into contact with a disgruntled employee, I try to remind myself that maybe this person has had a bad day, or hates his or her job, or has some kind of reason to be so grouchy and miserable. But what I had just unwillingly been a part of was something entirely different– two nearly identical mistakes had been treated in utterly different manners based solely on what the customers looked like. While my incomprehension of every single tiny rule of the postal system had been treated with (actually unprecedented) patience and respect, this man’s far more excusable confusion had been the cause for anger, rudeness, and quite frankly, inexcusable and atrocious discrimination. As an educated, native English speaker, my ignorance actually made me the one, if anything, who deserved less patience. I remembered the creeping advancement of terror I’d felt when I had to change planes in Santiago, Chile two summers before and was certain I wouldn’t be able to figure out how to get my bag through customs and recheck it onto my next flight. Processes that are confusing and difficult even in a first language suddenly become harrowing trials of one’s mettle in a second language. The fact that this man had had the courage to walk into the post office and try the best he could to simultaneously struggle with this bewildering slice of bureaucracy and the language barrier was unbelievable to me. And the fact that this bravery and effort was rewarded by being loudly, publicly berated after I had just made a similar mistake and gotten nothing but a helpful nudge in the right direction was disgusting and awful and sad. I had received preferential treatment that I did not want or deserve just because of the ethnicity and nationality that I was born into.
Having never found myself in such a blatant instance of undeserved preferential treatment based on my young-white-female status, I was not able to react quickly enough to say in the moment what I would have liked to say to the money order man, to say what he deserved to hear. But here it is.
This place is the absolute worst. It is unnecessarily confusing and pointlessly complicated and basically impossible to figure out unless you happen to work here, in which case it is then painfully and exasperatingly obvious. Every time I come in here it makes me feel totally inadequate and stupid and I hate it. The fact that you didn’t know where to address your money order is completely legitimate and understandable. And oh yeah, it’s also TOTALLY NOT A BIG DEAL. Please disregard the inexcusable disrespect and lack of patience or empathy you were just treated with and keep doing the best you can. Living in a country where they speak a language that’s not your first is exhausting, complicated, difficult, and at times flat-out maddening. The fact that you came in here and gave this a shot anyway is impressive and applaudable. I don’t know you, but I’m proud of you.
Stick THAT in the upper lefthand corner, Robert DeNiro.