It was several years ago when I ran across this problem. A young (high school age) girl, Zoe, was talking about a problem she had with another girl she had always considered a good friend.
“I don’t know what’s the matter. I mean, we were all just fooling around you know. And Angie got all mad. Like we were being mean talking about her hair!”
My friend was truly confused.
I asked if Zoe was sure Angie knew it was a joke, and she said yes…and I asked “Was she laughing?” And Zoe looked confused…Apparently Angie hadn’t been laughing.
“It was real stupid.” Zoe said. I mean, she cried.”
I suggested that if the people on both sides of a joke weren’t having fun, then something was wrong. Apparently Angie’s feelings were being hurt. Basically, I said, when the person you are “joking” with is moved to tears, you are walking in to bullying country.
Zoe was horrified. SHE was NOT a bully. She realy loved Angie. “We’re best friends.” She protested. “Or we were! Honest Mrs. B., we didn’t mean to make her cry. We all thought we were having fun.”
It’s a slippery slope, that line where two people having the same conversation have totally different reactions to what is going on. I know because I did it myself recently.
I was visiting a friend in the hospital and there were nurses and other hospital-type folks coming in and out of the room constantly, and things were getting a bit crowded.
At one point, a woman walked in carrying some papers and I got up to leave. I said I would take myself to the gift shop and see if I could buy me something to cheer me up. Then, turning to the newcomer I said, “I’m going to leave my purse with you. Don’t steal it, okay?” and exited, laughing.
I stopped laughing when I got back. It seems that the woman took exception to my “Don’t steal my purse” line.
“How come,” she reportedly said to my bedridden friend, “How come white people always think a black person is going to steal their purse?”
I couldn’t believe it – on two levels. I hadn’t really considered that the woman was black. I just that everytime I went in to the hospital the staff warned me not to leave money in my purse or wear expensive jewelry. It was a JOKE line.
Okay two things. One is that if I’d really thought this lady was going to take my purse I wouldn’t have called attention to the fact that I was going to leave it…I would have taken it with me.
The other is that I don’t have the idea in my head that any black person I meet is likely to rob me.
Then I flashed back to that long ago conversation with Zoe. If both ends of a conversation don’t understand the intention, something has to give. Problem with that? I haven’t a clue as to how one accomplishes that.
Sometime back either Harry Belefonte or Sidney Poitier was quoted as saying that, while he appreciated being pointed out as a “handsome BLACK man,” he would really prefer to just be recognized as a handsome man.
Alright…immediately I see two problems here. The first is that I am mixing up Sidney and Harry. I expect to be accused of thinking that all black men look alike. No such thing. I know those two faces very well. They are both gorgeous, both black. It’s my memory that’s going, not my good taste in men.
The second thing is that I disagree totally with the quibble. I believe that when someone calls another person a handsome black man he/she is calling up a particular type of beauty. It is a different look from a handsome white man or a handsome Arab, and, to my mind, it is an essential part of the person.
The big problem as I see it, is that some people still use “black” as an accusation. Not always, and, at least in my world, not most people. Just too, too many.
So how do we go about building a world in which we can be at ease when using these descriptive terms.
Thus far, I haven’t a clue. Obviously it isn’t safe to ignore a person’s roots. But it also isn’t safe to insist upon recognizing them. So how do we begin?
It would be wonderful if we could all just overlook the past many hundreds of years of hurling insults at each other and instead take a magical step into the land of beginning again.
Need I say – “That ain’t gonna happen any time soon.” So what is the next step?
For all of you who began this little trip with me hoping I had an answer…I don’t. What I have is a question.
Is there something in YOUR attitude? Something in YOUR tone of voice? Something in your use of these words – OR the way you hear these words, that can make a difference? Condescension? Accusation?
I don’t know, but I intend to make an effort to understand where the other guy is coming from. Maybe if we all just pay close attention, we can meet in the middle somewhere.
WORD OF THE MONTH
EMPATHY: One of the words listed in the thesaurus for empathy is TRANSFERENCE. Maybe that’s one place to start. Try putting yourself in the position of the person who feels belittled. Can you change the way you phrase a thought so that you both know your purpose is to be a friend? Or, as the one who feels belittled, could you take down you guard just a little on the off chance that the person speaking really means well?