Distracted by Racism – And I Still Can’t Get My Deli Meat

It was the third store I’d been in for lawnmower parts. The man behind the counter wouldn’t even speak to me. He just smiled condescendingly. As I handed him the paper with the part number I’d written down, I noticed he was smugly suppressing laughter. He even let out an audible chuckle. I was nearly to the point of asking him if he could tell me exactly what was so funny. Being greeted in the same manner for the third time, I had that unpleasant, irrational and impossible urge to wipe that smile off his face. I continued to talk, seriously, about the engine repair I’d already done on my lawnmower. Soon I had him drawn into the kind of conversation that he would normally have with any man that walked into his shop. I finally got the part I needed, and a little advice to boot. I did, however, resent the fact that I’d had to use restraint and diplomacy when faced with a prejudice no man would have had to endure.

While women fill the halls of Congress, serve as CEO’s and in managerial positions across the country, the fact remains that sexism for the average woman is alive and well. It has been mostly sexism, and classism, that has sullied the lives of Americans since the Civil Rights era, not racism.

When I see a black woman, I do not see black. I see another woman facing the same stereotypes and prejudice faced by all women. She may be struggling with an abusive husband, caring for her elderly parents, or worried sick about how to keep her children safe in a society that is spinning out of control.

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I stand at the deli. I’ve been waiting for a while. Finally, after everyone ahead of me has been waited on, I take a breath to give my order and hear, “Can I help you, sir?” Unbeknownst to me, a man has just walked up next to me. He orders. I wait. Later, I say to the man or woman behind the counter, “You know, I was actually here before him.” I get the same response, “I’m sorry ma’am. How can I help you?” In customer service speak, that translates into, “Whatever.” Occasionally, I hear the response that irks me the most: “Oh, I’m sorry. I thought you were with

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Being a single woman is even more unique. A couple will always be waited on ahead of me. Strength in numbers I guess.

People tend to keep their distance from single women; especially couples. They believe if you are single, you must be looking to “hook up.” You are identified as a threat before you’re even introduced. Ultimately, you are separated from the pack.

On the other end of the spectrum, I remember an experience I had when I went to see a traveling preacher at a local church, of which I was not a member. When I entered the hall, the resident pastor rushed up and asked if I was alone. I was. He then asked if I was married. “Ugh, no,” I said uneasily. “Oh, we don’t want you to feel left out. Come, I’ll seat you with Mr. and Mrs. Johnson,” he said. He led me down to a row of seats where a couple was sitting. He introduced us, told the couple I was alone and asked if I could sit between them. They obliged and I awkwardly sat between this husband and wife for the entire event. It was a strange combination of amusement and anger at what I felt was a violation of my privacy — and theirs. I entertained the idea of standing up quickly in the middle of the service and proclaiming, “Why Mr. Johnson! I can’t believe you’d try that!” I was trying to amuse myself, but secretly wanted as much distance between me and that church as I could get. I never went back.

Classism is a constant struggle as well. While I could give numerous examples, one former employer exemplified it best. I worked for millionaires who never talked with anyone without first assessing the value of their shoes and clothes. Eye contact was something they only established after the first ten seconds of value appraisal was complete. After watching this for years, I found it hard to squelch the urge to walk into my boss’s office and say, “The shoes were $10 at Wal-Mart. Neither you nor the country club approves. Can we proceed with the conversation now?”

That was the job I took to be near my home to care for my elderly parents. I dumbed down my resume and took what I could get; when there were jobs to get. During the interview, the president of the company told me, delicately, that I would be “working mostly with men.” I can’t remember exactly how he conveyed it, but he warned me that those men often treated women in an “old fashioned” kind of way. I understood, and said I could deal with it. I even got used to sitting rigidly and grimacing when one male coworker would come up behind me and massage my shoulders whenever he wanted a project completed. I endured all the winks, the “honey’s” and “sweeties;” I endured the eye rolling and the smirks at my assumed stupidity. I even tolerated being counted so unworthy as to be ignored when I spoke. I thought I could handle it. “After all, I’m paid well,” I told myself. But after eight years, I found it had slowly eaten away at my self-esteem, and my perception of myself in the world.

The Pentagon may be opening front-line combat roles to women, but civilian life remains largely unchanged. In small towns across America, society hasn’t evolved far beyond twenty years ago. That’s when I stood in a small town tavern visiting a friend, while a volunteer firefighter beat his girlfriend outside on the sidewalk — while everyone watched. “Why isn’t anyone doing anything!” I screamed. I was pulled away from the door. “Joe’s a good firefighter. It’s between them. Look, she gets up every time. It’s okay. Stay out of it.”

I had hoped that we, as a nation, could continue to work towards overcoming discrimination and mistreatment of women both around the globe and in our own country. Instead, we’ve been inundated with misogyny in the hip-hop culture that has rapidly spread to white suburbia and the gangsta wannabe’s. Instead of phasing it out from one generation, we are accelerating it into the next.

Since the Civil Rights movement, we should have been advancing towards eradicating sexism and classism. Instead we’ve wasted valuable time allowing Americans to be brainwashed by the idea that white-on-black racism is the largest problem we’re faced with. Contrarily, we are rapidly moving towards black-on-white violence becoming the greatest struggle of our time. The fact is, before President Obama came along, race was a problem that most Americans had overcome. As an added deceitful distraction, the President has even given credence to young people who believe that gay rights is the biggest civil rights issue of our time.

I’d like to see Michelle Obama, as that “single mother” she claims to be, shopping at a grocery store near me. She would be quite surprised to learn that she was ignored at the deli counter not because she was black, but because she was a woman. I’m sure her husband would convince her otherwise.

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