A friend of mine who has recently been forced to give up driving temporarily because of a disability reports her first foray onto the bus with a bus pass for people with disabilities. She is fragrant, beautiful and IN HER PRIME, and there is no outward sign of her condition. She reports a woman on the bus giving her a meaningful look and muttering about fraud. Or is she imagining it?
I can identify very well with this, having been the subject of untold incidences of undefinable looks, stares, mutterings as well as loudly-voiced insults since I was about 5 years old. You do everything you can to convince yourself that you’re imagining it, that there is no slight, but your subconscious reading of body language, when combined with long and varied experience of discrimination, screams to you that there is some injustice being visited on you here. And try as you might, because you do try – who, after all, wants to go out looking for slights and prejudices every day? – you can’t shake the feeling that you have suffered some injustice.
What are your options?
Well, if you have the courage, and your wit arrives before you reach the top of the stars, you can speak out. But here you risk being labelled as militant or strident or having a chip on your shoulder. And that might be a risk you understandably don’t want to take in your career, your friendships or your life.
Or you could simply sit and seethe and take the insult of variable degree and do as I do: turn in on yourself. “What did I do to make him hate me? I must have done something. Somewhere along the line I did not come up to the mark. Somewhere along the line I was not twice as clever; twice as well behaved so he justifiably called me out on it. I was not good enough so it was clearly my fault for bringing the insult on myself. Or I probably imagined it because I’m so stupid and have no judgement.”
Which one of these do you think I do most, my dears?
I was explaining my thought processes to MsDD yesterday during a trip to Bluewater. Now she is a confident, matter-of-fact child, brimming with sass, and the fact that she is not timid like her mother and always seems to be ready with an apposite retort fills me with extreme pride. I was talking about some incident at that funeral on Friday, when some people preferred to fall back join their stupid, lazy stereotypes to win conspicuous victories against people who don’t fight back for reasons of courtesy. They’re at a funeral, for goodness’ sake. Why should they have to launch into huge explanations of what their job entails in order to defend themselves?
Anyway, I’m a bit sick of people launching an unprovoked attack on my husband because he works in banking. So I leaped to his defence and this made me quite unpopular at the table. MsDD and I were discussing why people do this. My view is that we humans are hard-wired to seek little victories over others and it requires extreme effort not to launch a poisoned arrow at someone as you sit down to social chit-chat with them.
MsDD feels that these people are simply revealing their own insecurities. Like the racist kids on the bus of my past, they are ignorant pr jealous, or stupid, or rude or ungracious or a combination of all these things. “They’re just words,” she says, “And they have no power to hurt you because they show how ignorant and uneducated the speaker is.”
And here I launched into an exposition of my own regular thought process that left her reeling:
“So what you’re saying, mum,” she reflects, aghast, “Is that, when someone is racist or rude to you, you feel bad because you can’t bring yourself to judge them harshly for being a racist. You feel bad about thinking that you’re a better person. So you think you’re a worse person.” I might be paraphrasing a bit here in my admiration of her reliable perceptiveness.
She thinks it’s ridiculous. A former schoolfriend of hers called her a heartless bitch a while ago. She’s not hurt: everyone who knows her can rest in the certainty that she is neither. She knows it too. And I’m glad she does. (He apologised, eventually.)