Tuesday, August 10, 2010

pride and prejudice

photo via http://s637.photobucket.com/albums/uu92/byebyecanada/Canada

I've read a couple of unrelated posts recently about racism and prejudice. It's not something I tolerate well and being the bluntly outspoken person that I tend to be, I will confront people with their...assumptions. Well, people that I know.

For instance, years ago we had a single black mother buy and move into one of the houses on the block. I had met her and knew a little about her and one day was talking to another neighbor. We were talking about the neighborhood I guess and he made some disparaging remarks about our new resident along the lines of lazy black woman with kids on welfare. She was, in fact, employed, was not on welfare and was trying to provide a decent home for her young children after getting rid of an abusive husband and I told him so. He was a little sheepish about that but I don't think it really changed his opinions any.

Most people nowadays will hold their tongue unless they are sure of a receptive audience. It's amazing how easy racism and prejudice can slip off the tongue. I don't think it is always intentional, just notions that people have without thinking and I don't usually confront strangers with their prejudices, especially things overheard, but it's been known to happen. Like the time I was at the gym working on one of the machines and the white guy at the machine next to me was talking to his black trainer.

I'm not prejudiced.” That was the sentence that got my attention and started me listening. I thought what a condescending prick. I thought other things like guilty dogs bark first and most people who volunteer that information usually are. He went on to say more about how he judged individuals, not color blah blah blah blech. And then he said...”except for Jews.”

I knew it. I knew that guy was an ass. He went on about how he had been cheated by a Jew and they were all the same trotting out that old ridiculous tired canard of the rich penny pincher Jew who controls everything from the banks to the governments.

What you may not know about me is that I'm married to a Jew and I raised my kids as Jews and I was comfortable myself for a long time within Jewish theology. I sat there trying to keep myself from springing up and confronting him but in the end that was exactly what I did. I'm surprised he couldn't see the steam coming out of my ears.

I was so furious I could hardly speak coherently. That guy didn't know me from Adam or should I say Eve and he had already judged my character and found it lacking, found me to be distasteful and deserving of scorn and prejudice.

I stood up, took the two steps and turned to face him. The trainer took one look at me and stepped back. I don't remember exactly what I said. I did tell him that he ought to be more careful about what he said in the hearing of strangers. I did tell him I was a Jew and that I found his opinion to be highly rude and offensive and downright ignorant. I did tell him that there were people like that across the board in every culture and religion. I told him that I knew christians that would pinch a penny til it screamed but that I didn't condemn all christians because of the actions of a few.

At least that's what I was saying in my head. Probably I was standing there sputtering. In any event, he didn't say a word. Finally I just glared at him and stormed off, paced up and down the aisle and then went to the ladies locker room to gather my composure. When I came out again he was gone and I finished my workout and left.

I don't know why I blew my cool that day. Maybe because it was personal. Maybe because I knew a Jew, a cousin, who was the slum lord of a small set of apartments, who totally deserved that guy's insults. Maybe it was because it was just so patently unfair. Maybe because the guy didn't just let slip a derogatory word or remark but set himself up as 'holier that thou'.

People have all sorts of justifications, or rather excuses, for their prejudices but I have to wonder, if the guy in the gym had felt cheated by a member of any other group, would he have had the same reaction, the same wholesale denigration of every member of that group? I think not. And really, I think the better question is this, if the exact same transaction had occurred with anyone other than a Jew, would he have felt cheated at all?


  1. I think of myself as totally not prejudiced but that's a lie. There are those little knee jerk reactions in my head. I'm not proud of them - & at least I don't say them out loud. I don't have very much tolerance for people saying things like that guy did when they don't know who they might offend. I know they don't care, but they should. I'm glad you let him have it!

  2. The best commercial I ever saw:
    A small boy and his grandfather were fishing. The boy said, "Grandfather, my Jewish friend says I am predudice, what is that?" Grandfather said, "That is when you say my Jewish friend and not just my friend."

    You did good!

  3. gail nails the central piece to all prejudice. when people write about the "black woman" who bought a house i hear bells. who cares about her colour, her sexual preference, her marital status, her income, her anything?! i am hopeful - as i am ridiculously so with all things that are inherently wrong and unnecessary and so done with that it irks me to see the slow progress being made on them - that many of the isms that plague our existence will become things of the past some day. good piece ellen. steven

  4. The minute people open their stupid holes with the line "I'm not racist-" you know they are going to say something incredibly racist.

    I'm racist. I'm ashamed of it, would like to pretend I'm not,do my best to hide it and not act upon it, but there it is. At least I'm honest about it.

    Despite being raised by liberal parents, who taught me to treat people as people, despite having friends of pretty much every race creed and color, the community and nation I was raised in have still managed to inject that poison into my psyche. I do my best not to act on it, but the stereotypes, the jokes, the bigotry, the lies, they are all there, and like vampires or zombies, don't die easily.

    But you can control it. I honestly don't know what else I can be expected to do.

  5. Both of my children were born in Hong Kong and went to school there.
    One day my daughter came home from school and said there was a new girl in her class, her name was Pearl Lee. I asked "Is she a Chinese girl?" My 6 year old looked at me long and hard and thoughtfully, finally said "I don't know but she has got black hair" I was so proud of her for not noticing and ashamed of myself for asking such a stupid question! A well written piece Ellen.

  6. Everyone has prejudices, it's just a question of the degree of the prejudice and how general that prejudice is. It's good that you said something, it can be very difficult in those circumstances, especially if it's someone you faintly know. One of my colleagues makes occasional remarks on the uncomfortable borderline of casual racism and we're never sure whether to complain or not.

  7. I have a lot of theories about racism - but I will spare you from one of my big ole trains of thought.

    I, too, am intolerant and yet I, too, have my own biases. It's interesting living in DC, a majority black city that is both the most progressive city (in terms of the citizens of the district, not talking about Congress) but is also the most racist city I've ever lived in.

    I love Howard Zinn's take on why racism took hold so strongly in the U.S. That dude was so smart.

    As for antisemitism, I have no theories on that one. I'm Jewish, too - what is the deal? Why? I don't get it.

    Thanks for being you, Ellen!

  8. Thanks for this posting Ellen. I too have read other postings about racism as of late. I agree with others here that no one is without prejudged ideas of others. The key, I feel is to allow yourself to not let the judgements made, be the rule but the exception. I live in NM and have, all my life, been surrounded by a myriad of peoples of ethnic backgrounds different than my own. Some of the most prejudiced peoples I know are my fellow "half breed" hispanics. It would make me laugh if it were not true. My father's family seemed to think they, because they came to NM from Spain via Mexico are better than those who come to NM from well any other latin country. Kinda makes you tilt your head like a cocker spaniel, HUH???? I have held my tongue, I have let my opinion be known, I have quit getting together with "family" for that very reason. Hateful is hateful whether you're related to it or not.

  9. yes, I see what you mean.
    Reasoned argument would probably have been quite useless; A humorous remark would maybe have hit the spot, but there aren't many who can do that. If it were the norm, I wouldn't have posted my piece.
    When it happens to me, (it happens all the time because of my nationality - the Brits are great at prejudice) I usually cringe and slink away, seething and spoiling my day.

    I think we might have to get my dil to teach us the right way to react.

  10. I think it's impossible to be human and unbiased--our brains learn by categorizing and relating whatever we encounter to previous experiences. What teaches us that fire is hot and can hurt us also teaches us to relate one bad experience to everyone else in the same box, and it's very, very difficult to reason yourself out of a subsequent bias.

    Doesn't mean we shouldn't try, or that we shouldn't get pissed at people who put US in those boxes...but it's such a basic part of human makeup I'm not sure it'll ever go away.

    God knows I have my prejudices, and sometimes I bend over backwards, in the other direction, just to show I don't. Total crock, and, frankly, I think the people who just say they're biased are a heckuva lot more honest than the rest of us. At least we know where we stand with those folks, and have a better opportunity to drag them out of it.

    I've seen some remarkable turnarounds when someone is confronted with prejudice and tossed headfirst into the group. This under-the-cover thing is a lot more difficult to deal with.

    And yeah, whenever I hear someone start the conversation with "I'm not prejudiced/racist/prudish/etc." that's a sure sign exactly that will be coming out of their mouths. I wonder why people think that making the disclaimer automatically nullifies the action?

  11. It's ashamed that some people are so narrow minded. I suppose that it all goes back to conditioning and teaching in one's childhood, but I try to see the good in each person, regardless of their race.

  12. I have been helping a wonderful Muslim family getting their footing in Canada for the first year. In my dealings with some people similar stereotyping is an undercurrent.

  13. Good for you. If enough of us stand up to this kind of bigotry, maybe it would make a difference. On the other hand, maybe it would just drive it further underground. Some people have to have someone to hate. It's just the way they are.

  14. I usually have a quick come back even if it is "fuck off you ignorant bitch"- not well thought out comeback...a friend of Stella's was in the grocery yesterday, carrying her 14 month old baby from a country in Africa... an old woman and her wheel chair bound husband came up behind them and said "euww I smell something burning!" glaring at little baby boy who was cooing with delight at bright oranges...Gob smacked- there is no comeback for that sort of brain dead bigotry, you know. They will never be capable of understanding anything.They should be put to sleep but I think that is still illegal...
    As for saying you are something as opposed to something else puts you in a separated category, know what I mean. I am this and you are that- when really none of it is who we are.

  15. I loved your post. Hooray for you for calling him on it. I've found it to be an exercise in futility, though, pointing out narrowmindedness to the narrowminded, ignorant or fearful. My credo is that jerks and mean people come in every size and religion. I love people of many different faiths, colors and sexual preferences, and I get so furious when people judge them.

    I believe if homophobes knew their ambulance driver or nurse or hospice worker was gay, they'd reconsider their hateful words.

    My family raised me to judge people only on the basis of what they do, not what they say or how they look, and I'm trying to teach my kids the same. We do what we can, because we're the good guys.

    Nice to meet you.

  16. I adore you. ROCK ON! assholes and idiots are of every scheme in any color...GOD??? Bring him!


I opened my big mouth, now it's your turn.