Recently, I was leaving a restaurant just down the street from my house. Real talk: It’s a place I go often when I need to grab dinner on the go (which, for someone who hates cooking, is a lot). I know the faces of the people who work there. I recognize them, smile at them, and talk to them on a regular basis. 

That particular night the place was crowded and the line long. As I was paying, I heard an exchange between one older black employee and two white teenage boys. The teenagers jumped in line and wanted some extra chips with their meal. The employee told them he was happy to help, but they’d have to get in line to purchase them. Openly frustrated, the two teenagers complained that they should neither have to wait nor pay for the food they wanted before throwing up their arms and heading to the door. 

By this time, I was also at the door so I held it open for the boys as they were leaving the restaurant behind me. As I did, I heard them loudly declare how frustrated they were with the employee who wouldn’t give them free food. And as they talked about it, one of them concluded their rant by calling him a name. I’m not going to tell you what it was, but just know it was a disgusting racial slur that rolled off this teenage boy’s tongue so easily that there’s not a doubt in my mind it wasn’t the first time he’s called someone such a name.

I stood there stunned as the door closed behind me. I watched them walk a few more steps to their car before all the thoughts in my mind just sort of spilled out of my mouth.

“Hey,” I shouted, “I heard what you just said. And it’s disgusting.”

They turned around, surprised and hopefully, a little embarrassed. I proceeded to take them to task in the parking lot. I told them how horrified I was that they would say that and how offended I was to hear it. I told them that I hoped they knew how inappropriate that language was, but particularly in the direction of another person over a few tortilla chips. I told them that they should apologize and that I hoped they would think twice before using that word again. Recognizing the bumper sticker of a local Christian high school on the truck they were driving, I even went so far as to tell them that I knew their school and what it represented and hearing them use that word in conversation toward another person made me want to call their school myself to tell them how their students were acting in public. (Ya’ll, I’m crazy, I know!)

When I paused to take a breath, one kid—the one who didn’t even say the word himself—muttered an apology to me before they both got in their truck and left.

I have a hard time figuring out what upset me the most about that interaction, but I can tell you that their casual use of racial slurs ranks pretty high. It was the first time I’d ever actually heard someone call another person that name in anger and hatred. And it was so gross.

My parents raised me to treat everyone with respect. It was never really a conversation, but more of just an example they set. It was the way we lived our lives. They sent us to a school system that was extremely diverse. I’m not sure what went into their decision making at the time, but that day in and day out diversity was a gift that came alongside my education. My friends were my friends, no matter what they looked like, and I didn’t really see the difference between us.

But I’m white. So really, I didn’t see the difference because I didn’t have to. Our differences didn’t really impact me. Looking back, I see it now. Our team would pull up to opposing high schools for football games and be greeted with dummies hanging from nooses in the trees. Sometimes that very same racial slur I heard in the parking lot as an adult got hurled across the football field at our players. I knew friends who weren’t allowed to date, hang out with, or spend the night at the houses of other people in our class because of the color of their skin.

So I guess I did see it, but I certainly didn’t feel it at the time. I could shake my head at it, not understand it, and be upset by it, but then go about my day as usual. It didn’t have to impact my life.

When I got to college, I studied Literature, but chose a concentration specifically in African American Literature. Partly because a few of my favorite professors were teaching those courses when I declared, but mostly because the writing was so rich. Those writers gave a voice to an experience in a way that I don’t know anyone else who has. The world tried to take so much from them, but the one thing it couldn’t take was their voice. That’s what I think made the writing so poignant. They saw the value in their voice. They knew the power of their words. They used them boldly and wisely—the way I wish we all would.

Listen, I don’t know what’s happening in the world today. When racial slurs fly out of the mouths of teenagers in the parking lot of a restaurant over a few measly chips, I think it’s pretty safe to say we’ve gotten off course. I believe it’s evil—the result of prideful sin and darkness rooted really deeply in all of us. I think it’s the fear that someone—someone who is different than us—is going to take some sort of invisible power out of our hands. 

But I think we’d do well to remember that the power we all have is in our voices. It’s in our words. They can build us up, and speak up when we see injustice, and show kindness to someone we don’t know, and be a catalyst for change. Or they can be the vehicle for hate, and separation, and disrespect. It’s in the way we write, or speak to, or talk about the people around us. It’s in the way we pray. It’s in the way we decide to respond to the things happening around us—in solidarity or in silence. 

I  don’t have a lot of money (#notrich). I don’t have some major platform or sphere of national influence. I’m not raising any kids to be change in the next generation. I don’t have a big home to open up to people who need a safe space. I don’t have the benefit of free time all the time.

But I do have a voice. I have my words. 

I’ve never been shy about speaking my mind (just ask my family). It’s a practice I’ve had to rein in some over the years. But in this one spot—in the places where people are hurt, or treated less than, or called gross names in the parking lot of a local restaurant—I just can’t rein it in.  

And I don’t think I should. 

I don’t think you should either! I’m not saying we all start shouting at each other in parking lots. I think we can all agree we’ve seen enough of that. But I am saying that we can pay attention to the words we use when we speak to and about other people. We can use our voices to speak up when we see or hear something that we know is wrong. It’s something we all have. And though it may not fix all the problems in this world, I think using our voices for the betterment of this world and the uplifting of other people is a pretty good place to start. 

Sara Shelton