There’s a difference between ignorance and intent. This is what I want to say up front, that sometimes people use words they shouldn’t because they don’t know any better. When old words like “Indian” and “midget” get replaced by new words like “Native American” and “little person,” it takes time for people to comply.
But eventually most people learn the new words and they use them. Unless, they are very old and set in their ways; or unless there’s a mean-spirited, underlying reason why they choose not to.
A few years ago, I found an old travel poster in the basement. I had it framed and hung it in the kitchen because I thought it was retro. The poster shows a well-dressed American couple in the 1950s. He’s wearing a light gray suit, striped tie, and classic fedora, and she’s wearing a white shirtwaist dress, navy and white pumps, and matching hat. They are tourists, just off a cruise ship, buying fruits and vegetables from islanders who are all dressed like Aunt Jemima. It was how things used to be, a snapshot of the past.
My adult children shook their heads and said it was racist.
I asked Kaman, my daughter’s best friend’s husband. He’s black and was in his 30s then. “Do you think this poster is racist?” I said, certain he would side with me. “Well, I wouldn’t have it hanging in my house,” he said, laughing.
I got rid of the poster.
Sometimes we offend without knowing we offend. Live and learn. That’s why we’re here. But sometimes people offend intentionally. And that’s what stops me in my tracks every time.
I have been on this planet many years and I have learned many things. But I don’t yet know how to deal with racism and prejudice and privilege, with an intentionally cruel joke, a mocking tone, a conspiratorial wink or aside that someone who is of my faith or my color, or age, or lifestyle, signals, right before saying something mean. As if I am on his side.
I am rendered mute by these things.
A few months ago a bagger, somewhere in his 60s, was taking groceries to my car. “Do you live around here?” I asked him. “No. I live in Randolph.” he said. “Really? I grew up in Randolph,” I told him.
And then off he went on how Randolph has changed, spewing hate because he assumed, by virtue of my skin color, that I was in his camp.
I should have stopped him. I should have said you are out of line. But I didn’t, not because I was stunned. Why am I always stunned when these things happen? But because? He was an old man. He was set in his ways. I didn’t want to rock the boat. Hurt his feelings?
I don’t know.
I ended up doing what I do best, which is nothing except go home and think about what I should have done.
One old guy in a parking lot. One anti-Semitic car salesman. One gay-basher. Does it matter?
“He’s just that way.” I hear people say. “She doesn’t mean any harm.” “He really has a heart of gold.”
Hate crimes are up across this country and hate talk is up, too. It’s everywhere. Gays, immigrants, women, blacks, Jews. But most people aren’t like this. That’s what I tell myself. Most people don’t mean what they say.
Then why do they say what they say?
My daughter, Julie, taught me a word last week: upstander. An upstander is the opposite of a bystander. An upstander is a person who sees wrongs and acts.
Children, she said, are being taught in bullying prevention classes how to stand up for people who are being picked on, to sit next to someone who is being bullied, to say, “I’ll play with you,” when no one else will.
I want to be an upstander in the adult world. But how?
By not being silent, anymore. By not being polite. By doing the right thing and not the easy thing. I didn’t confront a bigot because he was old?
I am older. I should know better.
And he should know better, too.
Beverly Beckham’s column appears every two weeks. She can be reached at email@example.com.