If I weren't white, if English wasn't my native language, if I was genuinely poor.
It was funny, hilarious even--but that humour is predicated upon the ridiculousness of her claim.
At work today, a woman (Irish, white, probably from a rural town) came up to me while I was just finished washing some dishes at work. I had seen her ask Mari, my co-worker (who is Welsh), about birthday parties a few minutes earlier. She asked me a question, and I started to answer. I could not have had more than two or three words out of my mouth before she interrupted me.
"I don't want to speak to you. Your English is very broken."
And then, without a further glance is my direction, she turned and re-directed her question to Mari.
I retreated back to the dishwashing area, shocked speechless. Utterly flabbergasted, I must have then looked the part she had cast for me--that of a foreign service-worker. Me? Broken English? In all probability, mine is better* than hers.
Now, I'm tempted to call her a racist, classist bitch, but as Jay Smooth points out, that's the wrong direction for this kind of communication. What she said was definitely racist, and classist. Whether she is racist, classist, and/or a bitch is not relevant.
How did I react?
Well, I retreated to my corner and I laughed. Repeatedly. I didn't say anything both out of shock and out of the habit of deferring to the customer's wishes. I wish now, in retrospect, I had overridden that particular habit by directly asking her why she thought my English was inadequate or, more importantly, why that gave her the right to dismiss me. It was an opportunity to challenge her prejudices, and I failed to engage. As she was trying to leave--I say trying because she was standing by the exit gate looking extremely confused, like so many of our customers do--I told her in loud, clear, unbroken, unaccented American English, "Just press the first button up here on the left to open the gate. Have a good day." I revelled a bit in having gotten to not only acknowledge her looking stupid but also to have corrected her, and inwardly I hoped she had noted my English skills and felt even more stupid.
* Ok, I recognise that 'better' is a problematic term, since it assumes a hierarchy, assumes that there are purer versions of English than others. It also assumes that hybridity and fluidity in language is undesirable. I don't mean to promote this attitude towards language, but nevertheless, adopting her standards of evaluation, the irony is that I would 'rank' higher. Even if I think ranking at all is stupid.
** I say race because (1) 'white' is constructed differently here than in the U.S., with Eastern Europeans definitely not being treated 'white' and (2) as my boss pointed out, because I am rather tan (my sun-lovin' Californian skin, even when sun-deprived, is way too dark for Irish people) it's quite likely she may have thought I was Spanish.