May 20, 2010

Beyond Prejudice



     The clerk approaching me took a second look, ogled me for a moment, turned on her heal, and scurried in the opposite direction as quickly as possible.

     Fair enough, I thought, viewing myself in a nearby mirror. The image was of a woman wearing a faded, wrinkled skirt; a  stained blouse, and  saggy, runny hosiery, all topped by unkempt hair—an intentional style meant to discourage sociability, even from store clerks. What business could this “bag lady” have in this department store? Must be she needed to get warm or to use the rest room!

     Her prejudgment was expected. My life was too full of people, many with deep-rooted problems that created extreme tension. I needed relief from the stress. Roving around the mall was relaxing only without clerks constantly asking me if I needed help. My attempt at manipulating others to leave me alone was an obvious succeess.

     When I visited an elite mall in Atlanta, where doormen greeted customers, I dressed “to the nines.” And I wasn’t ignored.

     People respond to us according to how we present ourselves to them. That’s why we “dress professionally” for job interviews or court appearances. We don blue jeans in casual situations. We all present ourselves appropriately to be accepted into—or, sometimes, to be excluded from—a particular group of people. It’s how we consciously, or subconsciously, manipulate and control how others view us. My “bag lady” appearance was extreme, but it freed me from relating to others.

     I lived in Atlanta, Georgia, when the population counter hit two million. I’ve lived in a community smaller than the 189 census population of my current community, Laurel Mountain Borough.

     I’ve experienced a variety of prejudicial forms that appear differently in huge and tiny communities.

     In Atlanta, where prejudice is extremely obvious, it was fun playing relationship games because we didn’t expect to be there long enough to develop close friendships. We were only living there during the three years my husband, Monte, attended Candler School of Theology at Emory University.

     The facts: Monte—a retired college professor, now a student; I—a homemaker, now with a small crafts business, and both of us,  property owners in Pennsylvania, now living in the only apartment complex on Central Drive in Stone Mountain.

     When meeting people at first, I was upfront about our current situation: Monte a student and I a homemaker living in the Vineyard Apartments. With each tidbit I noticed the person’s eyelids lower a bit, until they discreetly (or not so discreetly) removed themselves from my presence to speak to other “more acceptable” persons. 

     I decided to change my introductory statements: Monte a retired college professor; I owning a small business, and our living on Central Drive. These responses were apparently acceptable, because eyebrows raised with each answer. That people assumed we had our home coincided with their expectations from my first two answers.

     If I interjected any of the non-acceptable answers, the eyelids dropped. The use of two “good” descriptions held the attention of my new acquaintance. As I added further explanation, the “negatives” would eventually lose that attention.

      The results were so consistent that I found my game humorous.

     Yet…regardless of my responses, I remained the same person.

     Residents of gargantuan communities meet a large number of persons per day. They need a mechanism to quickly decide who to add to their circle of acquaintances and friends, since considering each one individually, without using clues, is draining and exhausting. My answers provided them with material which made me either acceptable or unacceptable.

     Smaller communities exude a different prejudice, one emanating from close-knit, deeply-rooted families descending, often, from original settlers. Resident’s lives are full of family, leaving little energy to welcome their community’s few newcomers into their friendship fold. Strangers are even viewed untrustworthy intruders.

     Both urban and rural communities pose relational challenges for persons with a mobile lifestyle, those who are merely sojourners in each community they enter.    

     What do sojourners and community residents lose through these prejudices?

     A middle-age couple, entering a small-town community for about two years, visited a mainline church. Since their stay was brief no one extended them a hand of friendship. Another sojourner confronted several die-hard congregation members:

     “Some friendships are temporary. How better to extend the Christian hand of fellowship than to welcome the sojourner? In fact, you may enrich your own lives by doing so.”

     Fortunately, the church members listened. The sojourners contributed to the church in many ways: singing in the choir, suggesting new ideas for fundraisers, tithing to the church coffers. When the time came for this couple to leave the church, members were as saddened as if one of their own were leaving the fold.

     What would have happened had the store clerk or the Atlanta people  dropped their prejudices and seen who I really was behind the image I portrayed by my dress or my responses to their introductory questions?

     Who are “people” behind the “scenes” they project? Where do you draw the line of caution needed for protection from harmful and dangerous situations? How much richer can our lives be if we welcome into relationship a person whom we might initially be prejudiced against? It might be surprising.

     I admit these are tough questions. But there could be surprising results from stretching our boundaries just a little bit.



Immigration is Negative for the USA

Immigration is Positive for the USA

Eyes of lavender, violet & amethyst

A Family Grows in Greensburg, Pennsylvania

Laurel Mountain Borough, Pennsylvania: Quaint

1 Comment »

  1. I recall stopping in my usual hangout, a fast food place, just after I decided to wear my “nicer” clothes for mellow mike as well as just showered and shaved recently. (As opposed to stopping in after mowing the lawn and washinf the car.) The woman at the counter noted “I see you changed your clothes.” I guess people do notice.

    Comment by Dmitri — May 26, 2010 @ 4:20 pm | Reply

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