Tuesday, April 12, 2016

Sticks and Stones

  • One day, I was on my way home from work, when I encountered a young woman who worked for a social-service agency. "Would you like to sign up for a job training program?" she asked. I said "No," adding that I was on my way home from work. The young woman, clearly dubious, persisted. It wasn't until I pulled out my wallet and showed her my work ID card that she stopped attempting to recruit me.
  • While shopping for a new car, I had gotten to the stage of negotiating the price. The sticker price of the car was about $18,000.00 and a sign said that it came with a $2,000.00 rebate. The salesman disappeared for a while, supposedly to go talk to his boss about what they could afford to let the car go for, and came back with an offer of about $20,000.00.
  • Talking with a group of co-workers, the subject of school awards came up, and a few people told stories of the laurels they had won. I mentioned that in high school, I'd won a National Science Olympiad medal. "You went to a high school that participated in national competitions?" one of my co-workers asked, visibly surprised.
  • At a social function, the topic of parenting came up, and it so happened that I was one of the people in the group who claimed to be childless. One of the other attendees questioned me on this, and when I insisted that I didn't have any children he asked, "Are you sure you didn't leave any behind back in the ghetto?"
  • I was visiting a friend, and when I arrived, he was listening to the full cut of Jethro Tull's Thick as a Brick on the radio. "Hey," he told me, "you should hear this great classic song." "I know it" I told him. "I was listening to it in the car on the way over." Until I started listing off the names of other Tull songs, he didn't believe that I was familiar with the group.
  • Coming home from the grocery store, a woman was walking the other way towards me. Seeing me, she pulled her car keys out of her purse and crossed to the other side of the street. Once we passed one another, she crossed back again.
  • On more than one occasion, I've gone into a store and had the wait staff fail to acknowledge the fact that I was there. In a some cases, they would hurry over as soon as I settled on something expensive. But often, the only person who would speak to me was the cashier. This didn't always stop them from quietly tailing me around the store, however.
I bring up these anecdotes because they're all examples of prejudice and stereotyping that I've encountered in my life. And I'm still here. None of them caused me to spontaneously combust or suffer sudden cardiac arrest. They were somewhere between minor annoyances and irritants when they happened, and each of them, some time afterwards, simply became amusing stories.

I mention this because from time to time, I encounter people who don't seem to understand, now that it's actually happening to them, that prejudice and being stereotyped aren't the end of the world. Sure, it's unpleasant, but it's survivable. Now, to be sure, some of the things that people have been known to do in the service of their prejudices can be very injurious or even fatal. But it's not the prejudice behind the actions that makes them dangerous.

Being judged, especially negatively, for one's gender, race, class, religion et cetera can be painful - especially when it's a new experience. I remember how hurt and sad I was when other children in my neighborhood first began to understand that I was different from them in a way that meant that they shouldn't play with me anymore. But you get over it. Because although words may have power, eventually one comes to understand that they only have the power that we give them.

Not all acts of inequality are created equally. And, since if it bleeds it leads, an officer-involved shooting later found to be unjustified garners much more coverage than more minor actions. But most acts of stereotyping and prejudice are minor. None of the stories that I listed carried any threat of physical harm, and even the mental "harm" was more in my reactions than in the actual events.

Inequality sucks. Stereotypes and prejudice are unpleasant to live through. But in the end, that's mostly all they are. Even when a former shield against them goes away.

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