Blacktop and Language

Our driveway is blacktop laid in 2007 and I’ve never done any treating of it since that time. It was that reality that caused Pete to knock on my door Thursday morning of last week. Pete was cruising the area with his truck and noticed our blacktop. Pete seals blacktops and likely our untreated blacktop invited him to our front door to seek a job. I was interested. So, after a quick introduction, Pete and I walked around our driveway and Pete said:“This kind of work could run you about four to four hundred and fifty dollars. But I’ll do the work for you, and I’ll do a really good job for three hundred and seventy-five dollars.” He then added:“I’ll do a really good job, and you don’t look like the type of guy that will Jew me down, so I’m really giving you a good price.”

I interrupted Pete before he could continue his sales pitch and asked him to repeat what he just said. He did and in the exact words. With that I said to Pete:“You don’t know me, you don’t know anything about me, what you just said offends me, in fact the phrase Jews me down, I find to be insulting.”

At this point, Pete ‘s voice now  is riddled with stammering, stuttering, and clearly my response has caused his loss of balance. He apologizes profusely saying that he really didn’t mean anything by that comment.  I stayed silent and did not rush to accept his apology. Pete then offered to do the work today for just three hundred dollars. That, of course, caused me to wonder if his apology was less of penance and more simply to protect a possible job. Unemployment, however, in this area is excruciatingly difficult, and more than likely Pete did need the job. So I agreed for him to do the work next week at his original price.

So, today as I’m running my four miles, my head revisits this episode and arrives at the following reflection.

Given Pete’s accent and mannerism, I think it would be safe to assume that he grew up in this area and likely he is about my age so that would mean his early years would be in the fifties and sixties. I suspect that his younger years, like yours and mine, were filled with messages explicit and implicit about differences. Messages that all too often suggest a world of duality, a world of “us and they”, and a world of  “either/or” propositions. Pete’s messages also evolved from the historical roots of this area, the deep South, that sadly include slavery, peonage, and separatism.

As is true for all of us, these are the messages that create unconscious “tapes” that play in our head about ourselves and others. Much research now tells us that these tapes impact our behavior in ways that we are not fully aware. Take for instance the most recent re-make of the doll experiments by CNN. Even in very young children, insidious messages regarding skin color become intertwined with attitudes, opinions, and presumptions about fairness, intellect, and morality.

Not so different from a message I received as a young child from my parents about our deaf mute neighbors who would refer to them as “deaf and dumb”.  A message embedded in language. For this reason the message may be more dangerous. Say something often enough and eventually it has no meaning. It becomes rote.  It fits as a neutral expression and no longer is connected to meaning. I have little doubt that my parents heard the “deaf and dumb” expression often enough for them to never question the “dumb” part of that conjunction. Similarly, I too used that expression in the same manner.  Thus language is another player in the socialization process creating those unconscious tapes. Unfortunately it may be the invisible player, the one that seldom strikes an alarm bell regarding racism, or for that matter any of the other “isms” that encircle our lives.

Another way in which it is a dangerous player is the quickness in which we can waive ourselves from its impact and our own responsibility. Pete’s stuttering, stammering, and “off balance” posture emerged only because I made visible the insult. Had I not, would Pete have even given thought to the phrase. I have no doubt that Pete never expected my reaction and for that matter, never considered the phrase as hurtful. His apology would therefore “smooth” away the insult, but did little to mitigate the hurt that might have been felt by me. I’m not Jewish, but I have no doubt that my Jewish friends are hurt or offended by that expression though they might not share those feelings.

How often do we use a phrase or word that serves only to support a disposition regarding differences that has no truth.  Yes, “deaf and dumb” is a perfect example of that, but what about these: “Well you know that is just the way they are.” or “It’s really part of their culture.” These are the subtle phrases that don’t gain the attention as does the “n” word, but do just as much damage. They unconsciously offer to the speaker the illusion of stability which supports an “either – or” world.  They also include a “pass” card from the hurt felt by the listener by simply saying: “But I didn’t mean anything by that.”.

As the new year has arrived and we consider our resolutions, it might be wise for all of us to take an inventory of our own vocabulary. We may have some of those phrases lurking around that no longer serve our efforts to create a more just world.

Stay peaceful and perhaps the world will follow your example.