Even in these unpredictable times, there are things you think you can take for granted in the world around you. Drivers will stop at red lights. People will hold the elevator. And strangers will treat each other with, if not actual kindness, at least a minimum amount of decency.
Kimberly Webb is a theater actress who has appeared in Steel Magnolias and played Mother Teresa, among her roles. She's a friendly sort, prone to chatting up strangers. Her Facebook page is filled with cheerful posts.
On her birthday last June, Webb went to the Westfield Brandon mall and spent an hour shopping at one of her favorite clothing stores with a discount the store sent her to celebrate the day. She talked to everyone. She was having fun.
When she was about to check out at the register, two women walked in. It is relevant to the story that they were white and Webb is black.
One of them repeatedly tried to get the attention of the store employee at the register. After Webb asked if she'd mind if the associate finished with her first, Webb said, the woman had a word for her.
"N-----," the woman said.
Webb was jarred. In disbelief. Beyond shocked.
"You should be somewhere picking cotton," the woman said next.
Webb never wanted to hit someone as much as she did that day. People would later tell her that's what they would have done in her shoes, even if it meant going to jail.
"I had to use my words as fists," Webb says. She told the woman it was 2016, and, seriously?
It went back and forth. "I told her it was my birthday and by that time I was crying," she says. A store employee came around the counter and hugged Webb. Security was called. A sheriff's deputy showed up. Eventually the woman — exercising her fiercely protected First Amendment right to be a foul human being, I guess — paid for her purchase and left.
Even one of the store employees was crying, Webb said. And here is my favorite detail in this ugly tale: The security guards and the deputy bought Webb a cupcake. It was her birthday, after all.
But the incident changed her perspective for a while. She kept thinking: Was this how people saw her?
"You know this still happens, but when it happens to you, it felt like — it felt like knives," she says.
She cried. Then she got busy, contacting both store officials and the mall. She says both responded positively and supportively.
And she told her story on social media.
"After I started getting love and support from people I didn't even know, I kind of got back to myself," she told me this week. "I know there's a lot of people that have dealt with much worse situations. It was just hurtful."
So maybe something helpful can come from this kind of ugliness that persists and sometimes thrives in an unsteady world.
Webb and others will talk about their encounters with bigotry at an event today sponsored by the Mayor's Youth Leadership Council intended "to open minds and hearts." And as a reminder of how far we sometimes still have to go.
The "Through Their Eyes: From Intolerance to Acceptance" event will be held from 6 to 8 p.m. today at the Barksdale Adult Activity Center at Macfarlane Park, 1801 N Lincoln Ave., Tampa. For more information, call (813)274-5909.
Sue Carlton can be reached at [email protected]