My mother always used to say that you didn’t truly possess good manners if you didn’t extend them to everyone. And I was thinking about that recently because of some experiences that exemplified this.
A little while ago I was somewhere when I saw two white women carrying large boxes struggling to open a door. So I stepped forward and held the door open for them. There was another interior door so I then walked around them and held that door for them as well.
They sailed through the door without even a glance. And they waited for me to open the second door without looking at me or acknowledging me and then walked through the second door.
Last weekend I held open a door for a elderly woman of color. A 35-ish white woman took the opportunity to cut around and to enter through the open door. By the way, you ignorant boor, it is dangerous to rush past older people because you can cause them to lose their balance and they can become seriously injured. There was a second door there as well. The woman pushed through and then let go of the door, allowing it to swing back on the older woman.
And then last weekend I was somewhere else when I saw a woman struggling to open a door. She was carrying a case of water bottles. I was some distance behind her, but I called out to her, “Let me get that,” and hurried forward. (You think I would know better by now!) She initially demurred, but when I got there she was still trying to wrestle the door open and she looked at me and thanked me profusely.
And then another man who had been in front of her turned around and saw her, and opened the second door for her.
And then a bunch of folks came through, but rather than just going through the door, they either tried to take the door from me or the other guy or they were apologetic or thankful or both.
So then I was at a community event and a woman was honored for her service. And as she went up to the podium, I recognized her. It was one of the two white women I’d held the door for a little while back, the ones who didn’t even look at me. While other people were applauding and she was beaming, I thought something largely unprintable.
Now I’m willing to bet you that if you ask that woman’s white friends and associates if she has good manners, they’d tell you yes. But my mother would vote no.
Sue brought this up in a comment on another post in which she asked why good manners should be so different. And sinoangle and I have discussed this issue a number of times within the framework of “bad manners vs. racism.”
sinoangle ultimately said that people don’t respect others because they don’t consider them to be equals. Therefore they are exempt from the traditional norms of politeness. The more I think about this, I think that there is a deep and underlying belief in white superiority that pervades our nation. I remember once reading that people’s behavior was more constrained by fear of consequences than by any real sense of morality. I’m not sure how much I believe that. But I do believe that when people feel there will be no consequences (or no observers, or no observers of consequence), they may feel inclined to behave in their selfish interests, screw everybody else.
I think my mother would agree with this as well, as she used to complain about a sib’s friend who had “wonderful, darling manners” (another parent’s viewpoint) when adults were around. But my mother could see what the kid really was like.
I’ve had a couple of interactions with white men who were strangers to me that have reinforced this belief. Once was when I was riding on a crowded train. A black woman with a baby and a toddler entered, and I stood up to offer her my seat. (I must note that I am not all that polite, and I really didn’t want to give up my seat and gave it up grudgingly because nobody else was making a move to do so. So I want you all to know this so I don’t ruin my reputation.)
No sooner had I gotten up than a nice-looking white guy in a suit and tie made a dive for the seat and planted himself in it. I said, “Excuse me, I got up so this woman could have the seat, not you,” but he would not even meet my gaze. And nobody else in the train car appeared to much care either. So I leaned forward and hissed, “Get out of that [expletive deleted] seat before I [expletive deleted] yank you out by your [expletive deleted] tie.”
Surprisingly, he got up. And he went to the other end of the train car.
And yet, I’m willing to bet you that among white people he knows, he’s perfectly “polite.”
With regard to majority-white group settings, A. has mentioned it within the framework of “in groups vs. out groups.” A. says that perhaps white people are afraid to be seen being “too friendly” to people of color. Again I think this is the result of white superiority. Because if you are too friendly, perhaps some white people will throw you out of the club. And inclusion is very important to white people, but for many is largely dependent on exclusion. Whereas for other people inclusion may be important, and is dependent on inclusion.
I was thinking about how all this stuff is internalized for people of color, and it reinforces my belief that we need to seek out environments in which there are a whole bunch of us. Because that door is going to hit you in the ass otherwise.