He was telling my parents about places where he hadn’t been allowed to go.
I couldn’t understand why, so I asked.
“It’s because I’m black,” he said.
I didn’t understand and I told him so.
“Some people don’t like black men and some people are just afraid of us,” he said.
I still didn’t understand, and neither he nor my parents could give me a good answer. Treating him based on the color of his skin made absolutely no sense to me.
I’m not telling this story to illustrate how children aren’t born prejudice. I’m telling this story because it’s not the story at all. Instead, it is the introduction to a more complex story about how children, just like adults, can fool themselves about their capacity for prejudice. It is a story that illustrates how blind some of us can be to the complexity of human beliefs and behaviors, particularly our own, I’m telling this story even though I hate what it says about me. I’m telling this story because it demonstrates how someone can claim not to understand discrimination and racism while they are in the process of developing their own prejudices.
In the early 1970’s, I was one of only a few white families living on an Indian reservation, and I knew I didn’t belong. My knowledge wasn’t a result of the fact that I looked different from most of my peers. They told me I didn’t belong, probably repeating the words they had heard their parents and other adults say.
That might explain why I cried on the first day of kindergarten when I was the only white child in my kindergarten class, even though my teacher was a white woman named Mrs. Short. My tears must have had an impact because schedules were manipulated so the only other white child my age was put in my class.
That was the year of increased concern that my peers were losing their cultural identity. To address this, members of the tribe came to class to teach us native language and traditions. That was the year we had to learn native dance and participate in a root feast. That was a year when I was taught that the white men were the bad guys. That was the year I was taunted, teased, bullied and chased home from school.
According to my parents, that was also the year I began to hate people of a certain skin and hair color. My mother says once we moved off the reservation, I insisted I never wanted to go back. We did, and I don’t remember being particularly upset. Of course, I also don’t remember ever having the disdain for an entire group of people based on the actions of a few.
I’ve spent most of my life trying to overcome this embarrassing piece of personal history. I like to think I don’t make rash judgments about people and that I treat everyone with the same fairness. But when I’m completely honest with myself, I have to admit that I can be as judgmental as anyone else.
But here’s the thing – I admit that to myself. Maybe that’s because I was raised by parents who expected me to be accountable for both my beliefs and my actions. Maybe it’s because I have personal experience being different, and therefore threatening, to others. And maybe, just maybe, it’s because the young child still in me would be disappointed with anything less.
Whatever the reason, I wish other people would take the time to look inward and realize that any words or posts on social media about an entire race or social class are always going to be wrong because they are based on limited experience.
Groups of people are not an experience or an incident. They are composed of individuals, and each individual is a complicated mix of good, bad, funny, sad, right, wrong and most of all humanity.
This holiday season, I encourage everyone to embrace that humanity and push aside the limited experience.
When we do, the child still in all of us will celebrate.
Of that, I have absolutely no doubt.
I’d be lying if I claimed I never stereotype people. But I am being completely truthful when I say I come by those unfair stereotypes honestly.
That is, they aren’t based on propaganda or how I was raised. They are based on experience.
Take, for my example, my instant assumption about women who wear fur coats and multiple diamond rings on their fingers. There’s a reason I automatically label them as being self-centered.
Years ago, on a bitter cold December day when I was in my twenties and living just on the right side of poverty, I spent my entire lunch hour waiting in line at the post office. I was hungry and irritated, which are generally interchangeable for me. I was also uncomfortable and sweating. The temperature in the post office had been bumped up to fight against the frigid temperature outside, but I was wearing my winter coat. I was also carrying numerous packages and simply hoping the line would suddenly advance.
It didn’t. Every customer had multiple packages, and, even though we were smack in the middle of the holiday rush, there were only two clerks working at the counter. As we inched forward, I tried to find ways to amuse myself. Since this was in the days before smart phones, I counted the tiles on the floor and made up stories about the other customers. I even tried to strike up a conversation with the person in front of me, but he was even more irritable than I was.
And then, she arrived.
The woman wearing the fur coat and lots of diamonds swept (yes, she really swept) into the post office with an armful of packages like the rest of us. Only, unlike the rest of us, she took one look at the line and loudly announced, “I don’t have time to wait in line. I have a lunch appointment.” And then she simply walked to the counter and insisted she be served immediately.
While the rest of us stood with our mouths hanging open, the clerk accepted her demands and began processing her packages. She swept out in a manner similar to the way she had swept in. Only now, unlike the rest of us, she no longer carried packages.
And she never apologized.
From that time on, I labeled women who wore furs and diamonds as entitled.
In years to come, I would hear others use that same word to describe individuals and families who have depended on government assistance. And I would always cringe.
I was picking up a few things at the grocery store and was checking out in the express line with my seven (yes, I counted them) items. As the customer in front of me finished checking out, a women walked in the door of the store.
She had rather straggly hair and was dressed in cheap clothes. The little girl tagging along behind her didn’t look much better.
Instead of getting in line, she glanced at me then entered the check out line where most people exit. She simply walked between me and the man who was checking out. The clerk also glanced at me, as though unsure what to do. But the woman took control of the situation. She ordered three packs of cigarettes and then, when asked if she was using a debit or credit, almost rebelliously said “credit.”
I was disgusted. She had blatantly cut in front of me to charge cigarettes. And she had done it with a child in tow. She behaved as though she were…entitled.
And that’s when I got it. I understood how one experience can easily shape our opinion about all people who look or act in a certain way. And I understood that entitlement has absolutely nothing to do with social or economic class and has everything to do with individuals who think more about themselves than about others.
And neither one is right.
I can provide hundreds of examples of times I’ve behaved in a manner that directly opposes what I’ve told my children. Apparently, my husband is a few steps higher on the parenting evolution ladder than I am. He doesn’t always behave better than I do (although he probably does most of the time), but he’s generally less verbal about certain expectations for our children. That way, his behavior doesn’t seem quite as hypocritical.
I, on the other hand, am constantly setting standards that I can’t even begin to meet myself.
For example, ever since our children started talking, I insisted they use the words “please be quiet” instead of “shut up.”
Yet, I don’t do at all well with that particular language skill.
Recently, I was enduring a painful meeting during which a self-important person was holding forth as though his words were actually meaningful or of interest to anyone but himself. To survive the ordeal, I pretended to take notes while actually scrawling page after page of the words “Shut up. Just shut up.” A few times, I even added a less than flattering description of the person I wanted to be quiet.
But the words “please be quiet” are often inadequate. Quiet means hushed tones and soft voices. Quiet shows a lack of passion or emotion. And quiet doesn’t indicate disagreement when someone else’s words are hurtful or rude or simply pointless.
That’s why I haven’t been thinking “please be quiet” lately when people try to disguise their hate and prejudice with self-righteous statements and stupid jokes. Instead, I want to scream “just shut up” every time someone equates being poor with being lazy. But I haven’t.
I’ve held my tongue as tightly as the man gripping a snow shovel while he rode his bike through my neighborhood on Wednesday.
Wednesday we were supposed to get a blizzard. Schools closed. Government shut down. Businesses even changed their hours of operation. And even though all we got were a few inches of snowy slush, a lot of people with steady jobs and stable employment had a snow day.
The man on the bike didn’t have a day off.
He was looking for work shoveling driveways and sidewalks. He was offering his services to people who most likely judged him on his ragged appearance and his lack of a car. He didn’t have a truck to which he could attach a plow. All he had was a shovel and some muscle.
I’ve seen him selling his shoveling services on other snow days, but this past Wednesday was different.
I was leaving the neighborhood when he rode by me. He didn’t know where I lived or whether I was even a potential customer. I was simply some lady walking a German Shepherd on a cold and windy afternoon.
But, even though I had nothing to offer him, he slowed, gave me a wide smile and told me to enjoy my day. And then, balancing his snow shovel while pedaling his bike, he quickened his pace and was off.
That’s the exact instance I realized that maybe, instead of teaching my children to always say “please be quiet,” I should have been teaching them that sometimes standing up for those without a voice means shutting down those who speak against them. I should have been teaching them that there are times that polite isn’t as important as human rights. And I should have been teaching them that there are times when some people really do need to “just shut up.”