There is a lovely thing that usually happens when I travel.
People surprise me in the nicest of ways. Folks bridge the apparent gaps between us with small acts of kindness. Brief conversations reveal commonalities. The world shrinks and seems to me a friendlier, more benevolent place.
Not so when I was traveling through Arkansas recently, and I stopped at your McDonald’s for breakfast.
There was nothing amiss in the service I received, but when I reached for my coffee, there it was: a swastika tattooed on the hand serving me.
And now you—the young woman with the swastika tattoo—are what I cannot get out of my mind.
Did you notice the way I flinched? The way I stood there for a moment staring?
Did it register in your mind, the way my eyes connected with the ugly symbol you’d chosen to put indelibly on your skin, so prominently displayed?
Because I have tattoos. Just two of them, carefully chosen for their meaning.
What, I wondered, does a swastika mean to you?
In that jarring moment before I took my coffee and shuffled off, dumbstruck and wholly unsure of what to do, I tried to think of benign explanations. A harkening back to the symbol’s pre-Nazi meanings, perhaps—or a youthful indiscretion you now regret?
But there it was on your hand, this small tattoo that could have easily been covered with a Band-Aid or two, should you feel regret, or not wish to offend.
And maybe that was the thing that kept me from opening my mouth and expressing my revulsion then and there. You felt comfortable displaying that tattoo on your hand, out in the open, in your place of employment.
As I looked around, I wondered about your work culture.
Your local culture.
Our national culture.
Who or what made you feel comfortable wearing a symbol of hatred? Does your manager approve? Agree, even? How about your coworkers? Your family? Your neighbors? Or is it this turn our nation has taken under a president who incites divisions and refuses to denounce acts of hate?
It is one thing to consider intolerance as an abstract idea, a poison in our nation from which I am mostly shielded by my white privilege, but quite another to have it smile and hand me my coffee.
Do you offer that same smile and service to everyone, or did I benefit from my white skin and a presumption of solidarity?
You, the girl with the swastika tattoo, have become the symbol in my mind of all I cannot fathom.
What, in particular, has happened in your own life to inspire you to judge others from afar? What is the criteria for your hate? Is it reserved for Jews, or does it apply to the rainbow of skin colors darker than your own? Do you hate gays, or Muslims, or even white, liberal women like myself?
Where in your own soul is the self-loathing that seeks out such a superficial sense of superiority?
Because I assure you, if you were to put aside your hate—and meet people one-on-one, as individuals—you would learn exactly what I have: There are no others.
Would you take that chance?
Would you read Night by Elie Weisel? Or Left to Tell by Immaculee Ilibagiza? Would you open your mind and consider all the damage hatred has done in our world? Would you dare open your heart and put yourself in the shoes—the skin—of those you’ve only ever considered with scorn?
If you would, you wouldn’t be alone.
You see, since I saw that mark on your hand, I have thought of you with hatred. I’ve wished for people like you to vanish from the face of this earth and take your ignorance with you.
In short, I’ve become the perfect illustration of my own point.
No good comes from judging people you do not know. Hatred begets hatred. Only understanding can break the cycle.
So please—help me understand.
As I’ve learned in my travels, lovely things can happen when you meet people as individuals, rather than ideologies.
That ugly symbol on your skin has disconnected us both from our humanity. Help me find our way back.
**Author’s Note: I reached out to McDonald’s Corporation on February 28, 2017 through their survey code on the receipt and via email. I’ve received no response. I would love to hear from them.
Author: K.C. Wilder
Image: Flickr/Rusty Clark
Editor: Travis May