I Am Not What I Seem, And Most Likely, You Aren’t Either

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?

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15 thoughts on “I Am Not What I Seem, And Most Likely, You Aren’t Either

    1. Because you make so many drug runs from Canada right– you would happen to be carrying it with you. Gee whiz! I’m not totally surprised by that, though. I went to college at a university well-known for pot (it’s located in California’s primo area for growing it),and everyone said to me, “I didn’t know you were a pothead!” At least they didn’t ask me if I was carrying it on me!

  1. You know, I have no idea what kind of assumptions people make about me. I kind of suspect that even when people see me, they don’t really see me. I’m a bit of a wallflower; I blend in really well and am easy to forget. Until I open my mouth. I have no inside voice and I like to think I know a little bit about everything (not true, but I think of myself as well-rounded as opposed to a know-it-all). I also don’t read people well, so I have no idea if I’m shattering someone’s opinion of me.

    1. I imagine you probably take them by surprise by being a quiet wallflower, but then having all kinds of facts! It is really hard to gauge the impression we leave on others.

  2. Nice post. happy to hear you’re spreading the PH gospel. Funny story: I was having my boots shined while waiting for a flight at the Providence RI airport when the shoeshine guy launched into a very left wing rant. It struck me that he had sized me up by my looks as sympathetic to the cause (he was right.). I ended up touting a book I was – and still am – very high on: The Shock Doctrine by Naomi Klein. I happened to have I with me, finished reading it on the plane, and left it on his chair on the return trip.

    My only beef with your post is your shared assumption about Prius drivers. I just bought one, and while I agree that many of us do what you describe, I figure I’m already way ahead in the mileage department and drive it like a normal car. I still avg around 46 mpg. Cheers!

    1. Thank you for stopping by and commenting! It is funny how people size us up– maybe the shoeshine guy noticed that you don’t have a “Republican” haircut (how’s that for assumptions?). Every once in a while someone will size me up correctly, mostly after looking at the reading material I have with me (The Atlantic, Harper’s Monthly). I will put Klein’s book on my reading list– thanks for the recommendation.

      As for the Prius– I love how energy efficient they are and applaud their excellent mileage. I really should be driving one for how much I drive. My assumption about Prius drivers stems from my observation of them and having been stuck behind them many a time on my commute. Evey now and then I see one booking it, and I want to give the driver a gold star.

      1. My other car is a Volvo S60 which is really a high performance sports car disguised as a soccer mom car – it kicks serious ass. My favored ride, however, is my ’02 BMW R1150RS – you get the picture 🙂

      2. So, I’m guessing the speed limit is just a suggestion to you? : ) My first car was a Springtime Yellow 64 1/2 Mustang. It went from 0 to 72 pretty darn quick. My Sonata– which I purchased because it was more gas efficient than my previous car, had a great safety rating, and it is pretty– can get decent gas mileage (not on the level of a Prius or other hybrids) if I let up on the gas pedal.

      3. Ahhh… first cars. My first was a black ’55 Chevy (this was ’68, mind.) I spent an awful lot of time under it tying up the muffler with bailing wire. Ended up selling it for $25 (mistake.) I sold it because someone gave me a ’56 Oldsmobile Rocket 88. V8 engine. You could be cruising at 70, floor it, and the 4 barrel carbs would kick in and the thing would “rocket” forward, pushing you back in your seat with the g-forces. It kept blowing wheel bearings so I sold it (mistake.) Next I had a bug eye Austin Healey Sprite. The carbs needed adjustment about every 30 minutes but in between adjustments that baby would sing. Yeah, I sold that too (big mistake.) If I had somehow held onto all three, their combined value would be putting my kids through college now.

      4. It does sound like you had a lot fun, though! I had to sell my Mustang b/c I was going to move far away for college, and like your cars, it wasn’t that reliable. I had many good times with that car, and it made many boys in high school take notice of me, but they only wanted to see what was under my hood. Boys….

  3. Excellent post. One assumption I notice a lot is that of heterosexuality. I have a teen daughter who is gay. It never ceases to amaze the number of people (even lgbt-rights supporters) who nonchalantly ask me if she has a boyfriend. Um, no.

    Like you, I’m taken aback when someone assumes because I look like them that I share their prejudices. Not to mention, in this day and age, you’d think people would realize the stranger with whom they’re conversing very possibly has family members of other races or mixed race.

    1. Thank you! You’re absolutely right– there is much diversity even in people who don’t look “diverse”. I have many students who look “white” and have the “white” names of their fathers, but they have middle names like Minh and have Asian mothers. One would never guess that they’re half Asian. As for heterosexuality, I’ve had many gay students in my classes, and I’m always amazed at how some of the other students assume they’re in a class with straight people only. It just goes to show that we can’t just go by “face value”.

  4. People often assume I’m conservative because I’m rather demure. I behave like a goody two-shoes. And I’m from the South to begin with, so that adds to it. But my beliefs are much more liberal than people would think.

    When I’ve met people not from the South, they’ve expressed surprise that my accent didn’t sound as “Southern” as they think of the accent. Some people have an exaggerated idea of what a Southern accent/Southern person is like.

    1. That’s the funny thing about being demure/quiet– people start assuming that since you’re not saying much, that you must agree with them. When in reality, you’re just not being rude or argumentative.

      So are you saying you don’t sit on a rocking chair on the veranda and drink mint julep?

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