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.
The moment came at the end of a long weekend celebrating my daughter’s upcoming birthday. She, her best friend, her best friend’s mother and I packed a lot into 48 hours. By Sunday morning, when we were exploring Lower Manhattan, we had slowed considerably.
The city, on the other hand, wasn’t slowing down at all. People crowded narrow sidewalks under the watchful eyes of police officers on every corner. While the officers graciously responded to requests for photos with tourists, their ability to give good directions was questionable.
Despite their help, we were finally able to locate the Charging Bull on Wall Street. Since the bull had never been on my list of sites to see, I hadn’t expected the frenzy of people mobbing it for photos. Many were lined up behind the bull to touch its anatomically correct underside for good luck.
The eleven-foot-tall bronze sculpture is supposed to symbolize aggressive financial optimism and prosperity. Last year, when the Occupy Wall Street protests began, metal gates were set up around the bull to prevent it from harm. Now, the public can once again touch it, but judging by the police presence, there’s still concern about the safety of the more than 7,000 pound bull.
Personally, I think the concern about vandalism is a bit misplaced. I’m more worried about the almost worship-like reverence people demonstrate for an icon that represents an industry focused more on the value of money than the value of people.
Don’t get me wrong. I like money. I just think that, as a society, we’re too fixated on who has it and who doesn’t.
To me, the bull represents a culture rooted in money and the immense appeal that has. But when people go to great lengths to touch that lifestyle, they may miss seeing what’s really going on around them.
For example, just feet from the Charging Bull, there’s a garden full of rodents living off the crumbs of others. The mice live among the vivid red flowers in the circular garden around the fountain in Bowling Green Park where we ate our lunch.
What seemed like a quiet public garden was actually teaming with dozens, if not hundreds, of mice. When bits of bread, meat, tomatoes and even cucumbers dropped, they would scurry out from under the blossoms, grab their feast then rush back for cover.
Many of the people intent on enjoying the beautiful, late morning sunshine didn’t even notice the mice. Others were completely disgusted by them. No one wanted to touch them, and very few people wanted to feed them.
But my daughter and I were fascinated.
Although seemingly dependent on others for their livelihood, the mice certainly weren’t lazy. In fact, the were quite industrious. And even when vying for the same crumbs, they seemed to respect each other’s efforts.
That’s when I had my epiphany.
The mice represent all the low-income people who live and work right alongside those who are more financially secure and influential. They represent all those people on Wall Street who clean bathrooms and pick up trash instead of buying and selling stocks and bonds.
And even though they live in the shadow of a bull that people fondle for good luck, they also represent a great deal of dignity.
For some people, a lack of words seems profound and noble. For me, a lack of words is simply awkward and frustrating. For the most part, silence has always been just beyond my reach, ability and even my belief system.
Even though I understand that silence is often a sign of respect, I also know that silence can do more damage and cut deeper than the harshest words.
I’m not alone.
Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. said, “History will have to record that the greatest tragedy of this period of social transition was not the strident clamor of the bad people, but the appalling silence of the good people.” He also said, “In the end, we will remember not the words of our enemies, but the silence of our friends.”
Even the dictionary validates my belief that silence isn’t always golden. While the simple definition is “the absence of sound or noise,” the more complicated definition is “the absence or omission of mention, comment, or expressed concern.”
I’ve straddled and struggled with both definitions my entire life. My battle has less to do with my tendency to talk and more to do with my overwhelming need to call attention to injustice, wrongdoing and inappropriate, self-serving behavior.
I’ve been witnessing a great deal of such behavior recently. Yet, for the most part, I’ve remained silent. Even when people have asked if I’m going to write a blog about certain situations, I’ve said, “No, that’s not my role or responsibility.” Besides, my words could easily be misinterpreted as angry and bitter rather than caring and concerned. So I have decided my silence might be more powerful than words.
And so, the silence continues. This change in tactics is also teaching me a new art form: the silent blog.
I think this one says a lot.
Silence is argument carried out by other means. Che Guevar