A story, an assumption and an opportunity to learn from it
(published as a guest column on February 25, 2012
Copyright 2012 (all rights reserved)
in the Austin American-Statesman)
A chance encounter by a colleague of mine taught me something that I have in common with everyone. Consciously or unconsciously, all of us are prone to making instant judgments about other people.
Stereotyping is a word one finds in the dictionary, but there’s nothing like a face-to-face encounter to give it a definition that you don’t easily forget. Here is my colleague’s story:
“The University of Virginia is located in Charlottesville. When my daughter was enrolled there, her mother and I often visited her. On one such visit, a memorable thing happened.
“The town has turned Main Street into a mall. There was a drugstore there with an old-fashioned soda fountain.
“Out in front, there were these little, round tables. You know the kind I mean, tables about two feet in diameter, with two wire-backed chairs at each table.
“I had some time on my hands, so I went into the drugstore, bought a newspaper, a Pepsi-Cola and a package of peanut butter crackers. I sat down outside at one of the tables. I was the only one there.
“No sooner had I sat down, (than) a man came out of the drugstore carrying a cup of coffee. He sat down at my table, although the others were empty. Naturally, I thought it a bit odd. The man was African American.
“Anyway, here I was, seated two feet from this man. I looked at him. He looked at me. Neither of us spoke. I ate a cracker, took a sip of Pepsi-Cola, ate another cracker, and went back to reading my paper. Then he did it. He reached over, took a cracker, and ate it. Now, how does one respond to that?
“How big a deal should you make of a cracker? I glared at him. He glared back at me. I ate another cracker, never taking my eyes off him. He ate another cracker. Now what? There was one cracker left. Our eyes were locked.
“Then, without a word, without a gesture, without so much as a flicker of an eye, he looked away. He turned back, then looked down and gently pushed the last cracker over to me. Needless to say, I ate it. He got up and hurried away, leaving me with my newspaper and my Pepsi-Cola.
“I silently congratulated myself for not having been the first to blink. And I was still congratulating myself a few minutes later when I picked up my newspaper, and there under it I saw for the first time, unopened, untouched, my package of crackers. I had been eating his crackers.
“What do you suppose the man thought? Undoubtedly, the same thing I thought, and the same thing you thought as you listened to the story. Probably, he is somewhere as I speak telling the same story. I never saw him again. I hope I never will.”
It seems to me that this story illustrates a profound misunderstanding that exists in the world. It is the matter that divides the Croatian and the Serb, the Catholic and the Protestant, and the Palestinian and the Jew. It is the matter of “who is eating whose crackers.”
The question divides white and black people. Whites see themselves living in an America where blacks feed off them through welfare subsidies and affirmative action programs. Blacks see an entirely different America, a country where they are still foreclosed from the American dream.
Following one of the verdicts in the Rodney King cases, we saw on television blacks in Los Angeles looting everything in sight. Everything, that is, but savings and loans. Whites had already looted those.
Who is eating whose crackers?
Whites can’t understand the anger of blacks. Blacks can’t understand the resentment of whites.
Who is eating whose crackers?
What happened to my colleague isn’t unusual. As a society, the fact is that we compartmentalize people of different religious or ethnic backgrounds or whose ideas are foreign to us. Often, we aren’t even aware we’re doing it. We appear to have an instinct to rebel against anything alien.
Maybe if we admitted that susceptibility, we’d make decisions based on what’s real, not on prejudices.
Several years ago, I had a law clerk who had never been exposed to the culture of a small New Mexico town. I recommended that he read John Nichols’ The Milagro Beanfield War, thinking it would convey to him the flavor of the native New Mexican—the common folk.
What he enjoyed most about the book was how his perception of the characters changed as the story progressed. At first, he found the simple townspeople amusing, but by the end he had gained a profound respect for the natives’ integrity and loyalty. His journey enabled him to see things from a different perspective—one in which successes in life are measured by a different measuring stick than that used by most people.
That message and the one here is similar to the one Harper Lee professed in To Kill a Mockingbird, when Atticus Finch explains to his daughter, Scout, “You never really understand a person until you consider things from his point of view—until you climb into his skin and walk around in it.” Or, as my colleague would say, until we all realize that perhaps the crackers we’ve been eating are not our own.