Friday, January 16, 2009

Do The Right Thing

There's a ubiquitous commercial for some insurance company (Allstate?) that shows someone doing something good and decent, which another person witnesses and does likewise for someone else, who does likewise for someone else... I kind of laughed at the notion that someone would act right just because they saw someone else do it one time. Well, shows what I know. The other night 20/20 did a report on the treatment of immigrants in America. They set up a fake situation in which an actor playing a deli counter guy refused to serve people who did not speak English. I was stunned and pleased to see that a decent number of people seeing this occur actually got involved to help the people ordering and to castigate the guy behind the counter (49 did nothing; 9 agreed; 33 spoke up to defend the day laborers). Yeah, it was in New Jersey, where people are genetically programmed to get up in your face. But still--it was remarkable that all of these people--white and black--were absolutely not having this deli guy's racism and ignorance--to the point of demanding their order be cancelled, storming out of the store with vows never to return, and offering to take the laborers somewhere else for a sandwich. In any case, I watched this show and hoped I'd be that person in any situation where someone is being treated unfairly.

Fast forward to yesterday at Stop and Shop, in the kid's book aisle (yes, there is book aisle): A disheveled African-American woman asked two different people about a kid's book. I heard her ask if this book would be "good for learning to read better." The first woman looked through her like she wasn't an actual human person standing there and speaking to her. The second lady grabbed her purse and borderline freaked out, to the extent that the disheveled lady had to say, "Baby, I'm not gonna take your purse; I'm just askin' about a book; my son is reading now and I'm not so good so I want to get better. Is this the right book for that?" At this point I couldn't take it anymore, watching this lady be so disrespected. I mean, think about the courage it takes to tell a total stranger that you can't read. Think about the vulnerability in offering that information to a stranger. Think about the courage it takes to try to learn to read in your 40's when you clearly have no resources save the $5 books at the local supermarket.

So I walked over and asked her to show me the book. It was one of those early reader/level 1 books by Disney about the movie Cars. I told her to look for a book with only one sentence on a page, and preferably a list of words used in the book at the beginning, so you can see them alone and then in the story. Then, realizing she couldn't do that if she couldn't read (DUH!) I found her a couple that would work, and wished her well. But I was out of sorts for the rest of my shopping trip. Like, how can you pointedly not speak to another human being who is standing in front of you asking you a question? It's not like she was menacing them or holding a knife or asking for money. She was just, you know, obviously not from the best of circumstances. And explaining that she wanted to read! What kind of person recoils from that, regardless of the asker's physical appearance? It's just a sad statement, that this lady was putting herself out there--telling total strangers that she can't really read--and they were treating her like she wasn't even worthy of their breath. Like I said, I was out of sorts the rest of the day; but what I really hope is that those two other ladies were out of sorts as well.

1 comment:

Average Jane said...

Sadly, we have a long way to go before people in general treat other people with common decency. A friend of mine from Colombia had a situation in her new job where a client was extremely rude the second she heard my friend's accent. Stories like that make me very sad.