Why I’m scared of the supermarket: reflections on bigotry, disappointment and acceptance
by A. Adams, first published at Be Young and Shut Up
I’ve returned to the town where I grew up for the first time since leaving for university and a strange thing has happened: I’m scared to visit the supermarket.
This should, perhaps, not be entirely surprising. After I finished high school in 2009 I went abroad for 5 months and when my mother picked me up from my train home she took me straight to Woolworths to pick up dinner. Suddenly the realisation hit me that I was back in this fucking place (the town, not the supermarket) and I nearly fainted in terror, standing by the citrus while mum waved cheeses at me for my approval.
But at that time I was in the middle of the common late-teen crisis, that period between high school and university where you find yourself faced with a minimum of several months trapped in a rural Australian town full of people who know childhood stories about you, like how you used to walk around wearing only gumboots (wellingtons), and deep terrors relating to how exactly I should be interpreting that Herman Hesse book I read (why oh why did they include that bloody introductory letter from the author saying young people could never understand it properly?) Understanding this, I really do think I had reason to panic – and not just in Woolworths.
Surely this time it should be different? Now I’m a visitor here, stepping out for a moment of my wonderfully full life in a city on the other side of the planet to wave a cheery hello to people by way of confirming that I’m alive. I have a plane ticket home to that city, and a visa that means the UKBA will have to let me in (phew). I have a room there full of my books and clothes and dirty dishes, and outside there will be people waiting for me with wine and reassurances that not all people are morons. With this in mind I should feel, for the moment, safe.
Yet I do not.
Perhaps the scene needs more setting. It’s a mining town where everyone votes for conservative parties, apparently because it’s OK if your working conditions are shit and nobody can drink the water so long as those dangerous jobs and that damned water still belong to ‘Real [read: white] Australians’. The nurses’ area in the local hospital is still called the ‘Sisters’ Station’. And in the manner of a medieval marketplace, Woolworths is the community’s cultural centre. Sure, there’s an annual drama society play and a festival where giant papier-mâché horses are driven down the street, but the real day-to-day drama of the town is in this supermarket. Here students gather in the chocolate and crisps isle before school and during lunchtime to sell each other cigarettes. All day mothers in pastels glide behind wheeled vessels of frozen chips and coca cola and pause majestically where toiletries meets canned goods to swap stories about cousins and friends with other cousins and friends. Outside, fathers and young men in tight jeans covered in manure lean against their farm trucks and grunt at each other or raise suggestive eyebrows at women. In a corner behind the charity-clothing bin, someone’s smoking weed or something harder, while their parents talk about the new spa bath they’ve bought. And most of these people know me.
Last time, I was scared because Woolworths was the epitome of everything I hated about the place I was trapped in – the insular, never-changing rhythms that were sending me mad. But now I’m not trapped. So why am I afraid?
It’s difficult to pinpoint, and as I spend my first week hiding on the farm that was my childhood home and in the comforting bustle of the state capital, I give myself time to mull. After three arguments with three different much-loved friends about their attitudes to Aborigines, several awkward moments with a former best friend and his girlfriend when they react negatively to gay couples in sight, and two long speeches about feminism to young women friends who declare themselves ‘not feminists’ (one, because feminism has achieved all it needs to, and the other because she doesn’t want to have to fix car engines), I realise it’s probably got something to do with conflict avoidance, and something to do with my own insecurities about belonging and identity.
It’s a magazine ideal, ‘staying true to yourself’; a soundbite that fails to get at the way our identities shift and stumble throughout our lives. In my first months of solo travel, and later of university, I found myself so regularly challenged that I was in a constant state of reassessment. But in the last eighteen months I’ve made a small but very important achievement in my life, and can now identity a handful of things that are so important to me they constitute a core part of my identity. They are a set of values (I won’t call them ‘political’ or ‘ideological’, but rather ‘ethical’) that, in my university community, are no-brainers – assumed as part of what makes a person decent, the building blocks of a good human being. When I compromise them accidentally I feel guilty; when I do it knowingly, I feel disgusted. I know others feel the same.
Bigotry is unacceptable: that’s an idea that may be big enough to cover all the ‘ethics’ I’m talking about. Not just clear-cut cases of sexist, homophobic, racist or ableist language, but also more complicated (and too often, unthinking) cases of adherence to oppressive structures, from a blind love of capitalism to acceptance of the gender roles of Woolworths customers – remember the men in the trucks and the women with the trolleys. Bigotry is unacceptable, even (especially) when it’s me that’s doing it. On a personal level bigotry offends me, and on a moral level it demands a response: at minimum an articulation of my feelings and a simple explanation of why I have them. If I don’t act on this I’m knowingly compromising myself, and end up feeling guilty and angry – with me, not the people who have been bigots.
I hope I don’t sound too self-congratulatory. While I do feel this little bit of identity consolidation is a major breakthrough in my neurotic inner life, socially it’s been incredibly easy; my warrior cred is crap. At home, among friends, I feel part of a community facing the world in all its shitness together, and when there is a divide within our little community about what’s OK, I have generally found that when I do speak up I am listened to with respect.
I’ve read a few blogs recently about how we poor politically aware lot are supposed to deal with bigotry in the art we love (Moffat you shithead). I’m more concerned about how we’re supposed to deal with bigotry in the relationships we love. Because here, among my old friends, acquaintances and multinational retail conglomerates, what was easy at uni is hard again.
When Dr Who gets sexist, I can turn it off, or put something on twitter and join or start a conversation about it. Neither of these are options when a friend tells me Aborigines “just don’t want to help themselves.” Not if I want to treat the relationship with any respect. So I tell them, “actually, I find that offensive, and here’s why.” But my honesty has produced a lot of conflict. My challenges to what offends me are nearly always rejected and met with offense. Somehow the onus is put onto me; I must miraculously not be offended because we’re friends, as if the relationship gives impunity for bigotry, and my failure to recognize this shows gross betrayal on my part. So if I am to continue to refuse to compromise myself, I must endanger the relationships I spent my life in Australia building. That is a confronting reality.
It’s upsetting on 3 levels:
1. My friends are bigoted.
2. They’re not interested in confronting their own bigotry.
3. They don’t seem to be affected by the fact that I’m offended.
The first problem can be forgiven, but not when combined with the second. Still, it is the third that bothers me most, and makes me the saddest. Bigotry I can be angry about; a lack of empathy is something I find much more terrifying. I find myself blaming John Howard, conservative PM while my friends and I were growing up, who taught Australia to ignore ‘political correctness’ as a delusion of the left aimed at obscuring the tough realities of life (multiculturalism doesn’t work, refugees are a threat, etc). But how did that turn into ignoring a friend’s pain? That’s not a political position. That’s being a bad friend. Yet sometimes I find myself essentially apologising for my own hurt, because if I don’t a friendship will die. As if the need to apologise wasn’t already a death knell.
So what do I do? I could end these friendships now. But then, I haven’t stopped watching Dr. Who. These are people I love, with whom I share long histories. Giving up these relationships means leaving myself alone with memories that should be laughed about together. It means cutting off any chance at making more. And maybe they’re right and I am being too pedantic. Maybe if I’d shut up and let their comments slide, those five or six gin and tonics would have led to a wonderful night out, not a heated argument ending in (my) tears and a long patch-up session (still sans apology on their behalf). Which brings me back to my fear of the supermarket.
I spent seventeen years resenting but also loving this town. A neurotic at heart, I’ve focused my terror on symbolic old Woolworths, but really I’m scared of visiting the entire place. Because I know that at any moment I could be put into a situation that completely alienates me from my childhood home. One wolf-whistle, one bum-pinch, one old acquaintance who insists on asking me not how university is going but whether or not I have a boyfriend, or who manages within a three minute chat to tell me they’re uncomfortable with the Korean immigrant standing further down the aisle, and I’ll have to face a choice: me, uncompromised, or me and Woolworths, me and this old town. It’s one thing for my old friends to call me intolerant when I protest their racism, another altogether for one of those less close locals to tell me to fuck off.
Anywhere else in the world (I hope) I would proudly shout my anger when facing bigotry, but here I’m nervous. I can’t let go of that sad feeling that I want to be accepted here, in this first home of mine. I’m scared that if I am honest with my friends and old community, they’ll only meet me with disapproval and disgust. I’m worried they’ll disappoint me, or I’ll disappoint myself; either way I’ll end up lonely, freaking out by the lemons again. And so, finally, I just don’t want to talk to people. I don’t want to go to the damned supermarket.