06 December 2007

"You People"

This gets so tired, and at this time of year it is downright depressing. My wife goes into a local party supply store yesterday. She was in search of Hannukah candles.

We have lit a menorah in our house for years: first to teach our children the story of the Maccabees, secondly so they could appreciate the diversity of religion around us, and finally to show our family solidarity with the oft maligned and accosted Jewish community.

The clerk at the store was very pleasant when my wife asked about Hannukah candles. In that charming Midwestern way we so love, she eagerly went in search of them, remarking along the way, “I don’t know much about you people, but let’s see what I can do.”

‘You people.” That’s the second time in several weeks I heard that phrase. The other time was following a service where a guest speaker was Latina. A worshipper came up to her and my colleague with a great big smile and said, “We just love you people.”

Both were sweetly said and innocently intended, but to say “you people” is ultimately derogatory. That’s because we always use it to means someone “not like us.” “You people” are different from “us.” You can be Black or Jewish or Latino or gay or whatever the speaker is thinking makes someone different from the speaker.

And as it is always said to an individual, it also means the person speaking doesn’t see an individual but a type. It is the soul of stereotyping to address an individual as if they were a group. “You are a credit to your race,” people used to say, fairly cooing with condescension. We don’t say that now, but there is only a small distance between that and saying, “He is so articulate,” or “She has no accent at all.” As if the praise of a white person or a Christian or a straight was what the other person wanted or needed.

Yes, I am angry. Not that my wife was mistaken for being Jewish, as I have been now and then because of my familiarity with the religion and culture, but that people would say it at all. Would that we were worthy of being B’nai Israel (look it up). I am angry that we live in a country where despite all the diversity around us people can live in false bubble worlds where difference is always out there, over there, not here. Were I to go into a store and ask a question about Christmas cards, would anyone say “Are you Christian?” No. Were I to on the telephone, would the other person wonder if I was white because of the way I talked? No. As a straight man do I ever have to worry about holding hands with my wife in public? No.

I want for everyone what I get, because equality means the ability to be who you are without society making it harder for some than for others. At Christmas time it is especially hard to be reminded of how far we have to go. The Swiss iconoclast Henri Amiel once observed that “to see Christianity one must forget almost all the Christians.” And people wonder why I am such a grinch.

1 comment:

James Harrington said...

Don't sweat it, Fred. People who think, and speak, as did that clerk to your wife: to me, they are "you people." Perhaps I see myself as more enlightened.
But perhaps they see me, by my way of speaking or my manner, however innocent, and mark me as another type of "you people."
I have been the only white person in view along a very busy Grand River Avenue in Detroit more than a few times; I was once warned by a well-meaning black woman in south Chicago that I "ought not be here," as at that moment I was yet another type of "you people."
Misunderstandings are often just OTHER-understandings, or no understanding whatsoever. Blame it upon ignorance, or fear, but don't forget that what you get (as a white Christian male) is not what everybody wants.
Many would say that society's inequality is BECAUSE OF white Christian males, and I would have a hard time disagreeing with that.
We need more voices like yours, dispelling myths, weaving history's loose ends into a tapestry of understanding, getting down past fear to the truths we all know exist.
Again, thank you.