Friday, January 8, 2010

Everyday Life: On Civility and Civil Rights

The Tuesday before New Year's Day was cold and windy. I had occasion to be at the Fairfax County (VA) Courthouse to do some filing for clients. Familiar with the drill, I brought nothing metallic into the building with me, such as a cell phone, so I was directed to the quicker, "coats open, hats off" line. As I approached the conveyor belt, a short, birdlike woman, sans any outerwear, literally swooped in front of me - and many others - from out of nowhere and placed her purse on the tray with my belongings. The attendant, who apparently had seen this happen before, responded to my appalled look with "you can share." But what I found most curious was this woman's fixed gaze; she did not engage anyone with her eyes, or otherwise. She behaved robotically and as if she saw no one, so, I guess, to her thinking, she wasn't "going to the head of the line." I'm sure she was an attorney, as am I, however that day, I came dressed for the walk and the weather - thick, quilted jacket, oversized, striped knit cap and heavy, red sweatpants tucked into more than one pair of long, bulky socks. I wasn't going to court. You couldn't miss me. I suspect that she didn't, but rather most likely assumed I was with the hoards headed to the morning sessions of traffic or criminal court, as a defendant. She judged me by my dress, felt superior, and disrespected accordingly.
Fast forward a few days. 1/1/10. New Year. And I thought I would begin it by doing my grocery shopping in the morning. Why not get it over with?! The weather was relatively mild, and colder temperatures and high winds were forecast for the next few days. The stores should have been close to deserted, with the crazies from the night before at home in their beds. They were, but I forgot about the Blue Moon.
As I was checking out at the Giant on Edsall Road in Alexandria, VA, the clerk had a problem scanning the two manufacturer's coupons I gave her for Dannon yogurt. After she left her station to consult with another cashier, the woman in line behind me decided to move into my space so she could lean on the checkwriting stand while talking on her cell phone. I got pushed further down the aisle, close to the end. I politely asked her to move back, at which point she launched into a tirade. She claimed I had touched and assaulted her. At most I had brushed her coat as I turned to ask her to step back. I had ruined her New Year's, she lamented loudly and repeatedly to whomever was on the other end of the phone conversation, as she threatened to "take it outside and punch the bitch out, old woman." I stayed silent until the clerk returned and then scurried out to my car as fast as my 55 year old, native New Yorker, sneakered feet could carry me. The hot air was still spewing from her mouth as I hit the cold of the automatic doors.
One more thing, she was Black. And screamed for all to hear that I would not have done what I did (and just what was that?!), if she wasn't. The stereotypical angry, entitlement attitude personified. I was embarrassed...for her.
As I was pulling out of the parking lot, the store manager chased me down. To apologize. She, too, was a Black woman, and the contrast in demeanor was striking. I assured her that I knew the incident was not her or the company's fault and thought that the customer was either probably still drunk from the night before or did not know how to conduct herself properly in public.
But both these incidents got me thinking...This month we celebrate not only the beginning of a new decade, but Martin Luther King's Birthday. For the 25th time as a Federal holiday. It has been almost twice that long since the inception of the social movements of the 1960s. Dr. King espoused non-violence and personal dignity. Freedom, but not to act like an asshole or perpetual victim. The Women's Movement parroted that, and was about liberating "the sisters" to be whoever they were and all that they wanted to and could be. Equality and camaraderie.
Roughly a year ago, we inaugurated a Black president. Whites will in the not so distant future become a minority in this country. So, why, in 2010, did a Black woman immediately play the race card and act like by asking her to step out of my way, I was sending Rosa Parks back to the back of the bus? And why did that White and better, but not weather appropriately, dressed woman at the courthouse so readily disregard me and many others by jumping to the front of the line?
Because race and social pecking order based on all that appearance conveys is still a problem. We still judge; we still all want to be top banana, or at least feel that in some aspect we are. Age in this society gets no respect. And God forbid we should forego instant gratification or have to wait our turn! Women are still more catty than supportive toward each other, apparently unable to suppress that biological imperative hardwired to compete for men. Over 150 years after the Civil War, some are still clinging to the legacy of slavery. Something to think about on January 18th...because based on just these two encounters, there is still much work to be done...and things have gotten far afield from the original modes and aspirations. Rudeness is not the route. It's time to put some civility back in civil rights. Let's make that Our Dream going forward as we attempt to solve the problems of US.

Karen Ann DeLuca