He called out to me amongst all of the cars, “Are you looking for something new?”. I shook my head, “No, just waiting for my car to serviced.” He ambled toward me asking me about the make and model of my car and complimenting my choice. He was in his mid-sixties with blond thinning hair, a stocky build, and sported a mustache and goatee; he could have easily passed as a construction worker had he been wearing a hard hat. I shared with him that I purchased the Sonata because it was an attractive gas-efficient car. He made a face, “Not like the Prius!”. He stuck his finger down his throat and gagged. I shared my disdain of the Prius, mostly because their owners drive the speed limit in the left-hand lane. “See that Genesis Coupe over there?” he pointed to a sporty two-door model, “That’s what I have. I don’t have to worry about who sits in the backseat, because it’s just me.” He looked directly at me and cocked an eyebrow. It became apparent that if he couldn’t close a deal on a car, he would try to close the deal on me.
“So you’re a teacher,” he continued. I looked at him questioningly; I hadn’t mentioned anything about my job. “Jonathan (my service tech) told me that you’re a teacher. What grade do you teach?” He obviously did his research. When I told him that I taught juniors and seniors, he mocked falling over. In the span of a few minutes he divulged that he had been a straight-A student in high school even though he ditched most of it to surf. He’s from Southern California, has two sons (who turned out to be my age, but I don’t think he realized that), and has been a hard-worker all of his life. His eyes brightened when he found out that I teach English and History, “I really enjoy History. As a matter of fact, I’ve been doing a lot of research. And I’ve learned that much of history is incorrect and misrepresented.” I raised my eyebrows. When anyone mentions with authority history, research, incorrect and misrepresented, it’s usually not going to be good. It is often the Glenn Beck and Bill O’Reilly versions of history. Normally when someone says they like history, they mention a specific book they enjoyed or clearly state what they’re researching. I was afraid he would reveal his true colors, and I could tell it would not be pretty.
He continued, “For example, the way African-Americans present history– it’s incorrect.” I paused. Exactly what were they saying that was incorrect? Slavery? Jim Crow? Emmitt Till? Birmingham? So I countered and obliquely replied, “Well, white people have a done a pretty good job at presenting history how they see fit.” He nodded, seeing that I wasn’t going to take the bait. “Have you read Howard Zinn’s A People’s History of the United States?” I asked. If someone wants to know how history has been misrepresented, Zinn is a good place to start. But he’d never heard of it, so I recommended it heartily. Not understanding the meaning of my book reference, he leaned in conspiratorially, “I have a joke. I normally don’t tell people this, but I’m going to share it with you.” He proceeded to tell me a joke that disparaged Blacks, Hispanics, and the Vietnamese in one fell swoop. I tried to think of a tactful way to explain that he just insulted my entire student body (if you replace Vietnamese with Asians)– most of whom work really hard to seek a better life for themselves. He reminded me, “You know, we’re the minority now,” and continued on by discussing our country’s descent into socialism and entitlement. “Kids today are all about entitlement. Everyone owes them something. Even my kids expect everything to be handed to them!”. I saw my moment, “Don’t you think it’s because their parents teach them to be entitled? They learn entitlement somewhere.” Fortunately, my finished car saved us from further discussion, and I could escape his vitriol.
While it was humorous to watch him strut his stuff, I think he realized from my unenthusiastic responses to his beliefs that he would not be taking me for a ride in his coupe any time soon (glancing at my left hand could have saved him the effort). The overall situation of his politics and his racism made me uncomfortable: what do I do in that situation? My gut tells me that I should tell him that his joke is offensive and that he should read some real history rather than the fringe stuff he’s reading. Logic tells me that whatever I say, he will most likely disagree with, so I shouldn’t say anything. In this case I straddled the divide by questioning what he said without stating what I really think. I didn’t think it was worth getting into a political debate with a stranger at a car lot. Recently, when I visited my uncle, he shared a racist joke about our president. He followed it with, “I hope you didn’t find that offensive.” If a joke has to be prefaced or followed by the word “offensive”, it’s guaranteed to be offensive. I clearly stated my beliefs and then we talked about other things. No harm, no foul.
But the salesman didn’t only just make assumptions and stereotypes about other races, he did the same to me. The dealership is located in a very conservative area, I’m white, blonde, and blue-eyed, look wholesome, and I teach history (which I guess means that I’m conservative?), the very fact of my being there lead to his assumption. According to him, we’re both part of the “dying breed” that’s outnumbered by people with a darker complexion, and therefore we must be in the same boat. He just automatically assumed my political stance and that I would agree with his view of history. That’s a lot to ascribe to someone. It reminds me of the time when an acquaintance of mine upon learning my husband was in a band asked eagerly, “Does he play in a Christian band?” She didn’t quite know how to respond when I replied, “No. He’s in a punk band.” I often feel like the opposite of the “gangster” kid that people scoff at and avoid, when in reality the kid is super nice, smart, articulate, and will help with you bring in the groceries. In my case, I look like a goody-two shoes. When people learn that I teach, a common response is, “Do you teach elementary school?”. Oftentimes people are taken aback by my opinions, mouth of a sailor, and sarcasm. It doesn’t jive with my outward appearance. I often catch myself making assumptions about others, but try to remind myself what I really know about that person versus what I see or how things appear. Sometimes my belief about how things should be are so entrenched that I don’t catch my assumptions until after the fact. But it is important for me to remember that we all carry assumptions– those we are and are not aware of– and they shape our interactions with others.
Readers: What assumptions do others commonly make about you? How do you handle them?