I Am a Pot and I've Been Called.

I have always considered myself to be totally, absolutely, unequivocally anti-discrimination. On any grounds.  I despise racism, sexism, religious intolerance (including intolerance for religion), homophobia; I abhor discrimination on the grounds of "language, ... political or other opinion, national or social origin, property, birth or other status".  As a child, the adults in my life attempted to instil in me a plethora of different values; tolerance was among those I most readily internalised.  As an adult, that value has become central to my ethical compass.  I work in a staffroom with at least eight first languages, I can greet people in about 20 different languages (including some that many people haven't even heard of), I work with marginalised people, I have spent a significant portion of my adult life living as a minority in an unknown culture.  I have witnessed and experienced discrimination, and I want no part of it in my thoughts or behaviour.

I had two experiences today which really made me think about this.

The first was at 5:15, just before I left work.  I was standing by the elevators talking to a colleague about something or other.  A young chap, about 20, came out of the elevator dangling a key on a chain, which he thrust in my colleague's face, saying "I'm just returning this.  I was fixing the air conditioner on level 1".  My colleague wasn't sure what was going on, so she asked him for more information.  The guy seemed to be in a hurry and answered her questions curtly.  Then he said "the black chick behind the desk said I could give it to anyone".

At that point, my colleague and I looked at each other with raised eyebrows.  "The black chick" is our gorgeous, intelligent, multi-lingual, Sudanese receptionist - whose skin is indeed black.  I know that the young chap dropping off the key may well have simply been using the most effective means he could to identify the person that he'd spoken of, and I hesitate to heap blame on him.  If I had to describe her, I'm sure the word "black" would find its way in there somewhere - it would be ridiculous to describe this person's physical appearance without using it.

I think what had my colleague and I raising eyebrows was the combination of "black" and "chick".  Was it ok to call her a chick because she's black, or ok to call her black because she's a chick?  When used together, the two words both seem quite unflattering at best.  And, knowing the person being described, it angered me that this young man could insult her by so reducing her.  He could have said "the black receptionist" or something and it would have left a lot more room for some dignity.

The next experience happened about 30 minutes later, when I was on the bus.  It was quite crowded, but I'd got on at an early stop and had a seat, down the back, next to a uni student who was engrossed in a horrible-looking economics text.  After three more stops, people were standing all up the aisle.  I'd chosen a back seat because I was really tired and not feeling terribly well, and the trip home was going to be an hour, so I was hoping to sleep.

I almost always stand up, on public transport, if someone needs my seat more than I do, or if they're getting on in years.  I consider it a blight on the city where I currently live, that few other people ever seem to do this.  I frequently find myself offering a seat to someone who has to walk past three other seated people to get to it.  And I don't just randomly offer my seat to people - I'm talking about people walking with canes, pregnant women, people with babies or very young children.  To me it seems very obvious that one should give up one's seat.  It's just what you do.

So when this old man came up the aisle, I was really disappointed.  I'd been looking forward to that sleep and now I'd have to stand up for at least half an hour until the bus cleared out a bit.  I tried to catch his eye but he avoided mine as he walked past and stood just behind me, holding on to the handle that was attached to the back of my seat.  I turned around and said "Excuse me... Excuse me", intending to ask "Do you want this seat?" before standing up.  He didn't hear me, however, or if he did, he didn't acknowledge it.  I tried a couple more times to get eye contact by turning around and looking at him, but I couldn't.

Now, here's the thing.  Normally I would have just stood up.  But today I didn't.  I tried feebly to get his attention and, when that didn't work, I just sat there.  After a while I was feeling really bad for not just standing up, and I thought of doing so, but by then it seemed too late; I felt like I would have been drawing attention to myself.

Why, you ask, did I not simply stand up?  The answer is because I imagined that I saw a glazed look in his eye.  I thought there was a good chance that he was significantly drunk, and I was afraid that he would raise his voice at me, or get angry, or tell me to bugger off, or just cause a scene in general.  As it turned out, he wasn't drunk at all.  About 15 minutes into the ride, the bus stopped to let some people off, but the driver locked the doors and took off again while one guy was still trying to get out.  My "drunk" man called out loudly to the driver, letting him know that he needed to wait for the guy trying to get off.  At this point, having received confirmation that he was, in fact, a normal human being, I bit the bullet, half stood, turned around and said, at a clearly audible volume, "Would you like this seat?"  He replied in a quiet, polite, stone cold sober voice: "No thanks.  I get off at the next stop.".

The next question is the one that I'm ashamed to answer.  Why on earth did I think this man was drunk?  Why on earth did I think he was going to make a scene?  Why on earth did I think he was anything other than a normal human being? (Yes, they're all one question, really).

He was an indigenous Australian - an Aborigine.  He was dressed in shabby clothes.

As I said, I'm ashamed to admit it - but it was so easy for my mind to put that glazed look in his eye.  There are HUGE problems in the indigenous community with alcohol and petrol/glue sniffing; problems which stem from multiple causes.  It isn't uncommon to see Aborigines visibly drunk in the city, at any hour.  Once, several months ago, I was going through a particularly difficult time and I was sitting in an inner city park, waiting for my boyfriend to finish work and come pick me up. I had my head in my hands and I was crying. Suddenly I heard this horrible voice shouting “What are you looking at? F**king white c***!”. I looked up to see two women, staggering across the park and bumping into each other, about 10 meters to my right, and realised that they were addressing themselves to me. The sight of my tear-stained face did nothing to appease them, they continued to turn around and hurl abuse at me until they had left the park. I remember thinking how cruel it was, to abuse someone like that when they were sitting alone in a park, crying.

These are the reasons why I didn’t stand up. Intolerance is one of the few things that I can’t tolerate in others, and today I was guilty of it myself. Had he been a white man of the same age dressed in work clothes, it wouldn’t have mattered that he didn’t hear me. I would’ve just stood up and gestured to him to take my seat, assuming that he would simply sit down or politely decline the offer. As it was, I saw an Aboriginal man and my mind immediately created this whole other list of possible consequences to the simple act of standing up and offering my seat.

I don’t think this makes me an evil person and I’m not going to beat myself up about it for years to come. I will, however, remember it and I will learn from it.  

Today I was a pot, and I’ll remember it the next time I want to call a kettle black.
 

 

 

adjyo adjyo
31-35, F
2 Responses Mar 11, 2009

so good to hear from you, my friend.

bursting with self regulating honnesty this inward-bound critical mind would indeed be the ba<x>se of a paradise found in the dreams of those untarnished by self hate and free from the molevolance hatched in unreasonable fears of the unquestioned doubt x