Everyday Slights (May 2005)
“We don't have a race problem around here.” “Where I work, women are treated no differently than men.” “In my neighborhood, we don't see differences.” “Thankfully, anti-Semitism is a thing of the past.” Comments like these are not unusual in Carroll County or elsewhere. And people typically support these assertions by pointing to the relative scarcity of intolerance that makes headlines, such as racially-motivated violence in public places, “in your face” harassment, or lawsuits that stem from allegations of discrimination.
Everyday slights go unnoticed by the media and the public at large. Bill Bradley, former senator and NBA basketball player for the New York Knicks, talks about how traveling with his teammates, most of whom were African Americans, opened up a whole new world of slights to him. After a while, he came to understand the meaning of certain looks that conveyed racial arrogance. And he began to sense why if he was in the position of his teammates, he would always be on guard.
As the father of a son with a disability, I have my antennae up in certain situations. This comes from years and years of sensing the hurt that a word, joke, or look can convey. For the longest time, whenever I went outside our home with my son, I was prepared for “the look” – the dropped jaw, the expressionless face, and prolonged stare.
In Carroll County, slights like the following are not extraordinary, they are ordinary.
- Kids making fun of other kids because of the clothes or shoes they wear.
- Profiling, or directing attention toward a particular group simply because of how they look. Shop owners at certain stores profile teens, especially those in big jeans and a triple X shirt.
- Referring to whites who dress or act a certain way as rednecks, meaning ignorant, racist hillbillies.
- Talking disrespectfully to people because they are less credentialed.
- Prejudging people as less competent because of their accent, and treating them that way.
- Ridiculing someone by saying “that is so gay,” meaning that is so dumb.
- Men at work constantly talking about female body parts and sex techniques.
- Using the “N” word in high school hallways, restaurants, and in the confines of our homes.
Numerous studies show less “door-slamming” exclusion nowadays. Unfortunately, more subtle slights that may exclude or discriminate can be just as painful. Usually, any single look or comment is not apt to cause too much stress. But the cumulative toll of these behaviors on one's psyche, especially over time; can be draining. It can make you suspicious of others, harden your heart, or result in what journalist Ellis Cose terms “coping fatigue.”
Moreover, it is hard to know how to respond. Do we consider the person's intent? Do we “pick our battles” and decide whether or not to make an issue of it? Do we educate, explode, or try to fine tune our anger? Invariably, slights distract us and over time wear us down both physically and mentally. Sometimes, we maintain our composure, but our inner thoughts and feelings are in disarray.
In an earlier era, slights were apt to be more conspicuous, direct, and threatening. Rosa Parks, civil rights activist, recounts the pain she used to feel each and every time she boarded a bus. On a daily basis, she had to bypass those empty seats at the front, and go to the back where she and other Blacks would stand. “You didn't have to wait for a lynching,” according to Parks. Rather, she recounts dying “a little each and every time” she had to endure this daily ritual.
My next column will be “Marketing Diversity.”