The Whisperer

His whispering caught me off guard.   The Whisperer was tall, with shaved head and face, white, late 40s to 50-ish.  We were both in a week-long leadership training course and I was trying to pay attention to the instructor.  “The new African-American Museum is important.  I should see it,” he tells me, in a golf announcer’s whisper.  “Except,” he added, “I have to catch a flight home.”  He chose to talk about race to me, the only Black person in the class, at a moment when I could not  engage with him straight-on.  I glanced at him, gave a little shrug, and focused on the instructor.

The Whisperer had more.  “My grandfather came to this country in 1910.  He was Irish, and when he got here he was told …” — I turned to him and finished his sentence — “… Irish need not apply.”  (Yeah, yeah, yeah….)  Undeterred by irony, The Whisperer continued, “My grandfather knew that as hard as it was for him to find work, he could still get jobs Blacks couldn’t get.”  I’d already pivoted toward the instructor at that point, trying to follow him.

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But, The Whisperer wasn’t finished.  He said, “My father was  better about Blacks than my grandfather was.  I hope I’m better than my father was.  And I hope my kids will be better than me.”  For the second time since his whispering began, I turned to him and whispered, “So, my family was here 150 years before yours and we still have to wait for the 4th generation of your Irish-American family to do “better about Blacks”?  (I’ve been told I have a very “verbal face,” and it probably expressed incredulity.)   When the instructor stopped for a break, The Whisperer quick-stepped out the room.

Oh, if that were only the end of it.

After the next break he stood next to me and said, with genuine puzzlement, that he didn’t know what “White Privilege” means.  He used his hands to scan his long body down to his pockets where he opened them in a gesture showing emptiness — like, where is the White Privilege?  In his mind, privilege is about personal wealth.  He didn’t realize he’d illustrated White Privilege in his whispered tale about his family patriarch.  So I told him.

Sigh ….

20180525_121228-01-01.jpegProgressive media proposes a “national discourse” about race and racism.  Most of the time it is “the elephant in the room.”  I suppose this would mean all people talk to each other about the national legacy.  If we don’t, then we’ll just be listening to academics and politicians holding forth as experts and advocates on race.  I’m as open to a conversation about race now as I have been all my life.  My openness doesn’t mean these conversations always happen.  But, I will count The Whisperer’s tale as his effort toward discourse.

Let me know your thoughts.

 

 


What Happened to Courtesy?

All kinds of bad behavior has been showcased on U.S. news lately. For some, it has been entertaining; and for others, hugely influential. I’ve been thinking about the subject of courtesy for months, and didn’t know where to start. Well, there’s nothing like taking a walk on an unexpectedly beautiful, warm and sunny afternoon in early March to reach clarity. Two things linked up for me:  1) words and actions are a powerful influence; and 2) the phrase “politically correct” or “PC” is BS.

The power of words and actions.

Think about what happened to the greeting, “Hello.” Somewhere along the line, we began to respond to strangers less and less with simple niceties, like a greeting and follow-up “How are you?” Mostly, we rush through life and past each other. We absorb ourselves in our devices and opt out of social interaction. We avoid eye contact.

At one time, it was common to greet strangers in passing when they made eye contact. There were also a few people who would look others straight in the eyes as they passed, and snub them when they said hello.  Add to those few an entire generation admonished as children to not speak to strangers, under any circumstances. Our cultural niceties eroded.

No one likes rejection, and many people actively avoid it. Now, the people who look you in the eye and greet you are in the minority. Remember the English idiom, “One bad apple spoils the barrel.” Next thing you know, you’ve got a culture change.

And that’s just one example.

Another occurred during rush hour on the subway platform. A young man raced for his train like he was running the gauntlet. In the process, he crushed an old man between the escalator rail and a pole. He only stopped when he saw me try to help the old man he had jammed up. He was mortified and profusely apologized.  People move through life completely unaware (and unconcerned) of others in the same space. It happens all the time.  Someday that guy will himself be an old man, similarly invisible, and maybe even afraid to navigate this society.

Political correctness.

When someone uses the term “politically correct,” it’s usually with resignation or resentment. You may even see eyeballs roll and a sneer as they say, “I have to be politically correct.” God forbid you curb behavior, language, or certain terms to avoid offending certain groups of people.  Doesn’t this really mean that a filter would be appropriate so you can treat people with courtesy and respect? The fact that people would resist this is sad.

Evidently, there are some people who fully admire those who say what they really think, especially when those verbalized thoughts are offensive on so many levels. This astounds me. It’s as though the admirers want to revert to their five year old selves and cut their own filters loose.

Bad behavior is powerful. When it comes from the top, it seems to almost have a viral effect. That it comes from the top, seems to make it okay — at least to people affected by the “virus.” Could good behavior have the same effect?

In this increasingly rude society, I decided to push myself to do what is —  sadly — uncomfortable. When I catch someone’s eye, I make a point to acknowledge them with a greeting or a smile. When I’m buying something, I look a cashier in the eyes, smile, and say “Thank you” when we complete the transaction. Simple things like that. Maybe we’ve gotten used to treating customer service people like the nameless and the faceless, despite their name tags. How could that make anyone feel valued?

The responses have been encouraging and positive overall. Some recipients of this courtesy look pleasantly surprised. Hell, I’m pleasantly surprised — and wondering why this actually takes effort and what was my role in the loss of basic civility.

Maybe with little steps we can start a cascade of kindness and civility, one greeting and smile at a time.