The other day, as I was gingerly making my way from the car to Walmart, I noticed coming towards me four hispanic men in their 20’s, heavily tattooed, head-banded, face-piercings. Get the picture in your mind. A little nervous, I dropped my cane. Before I could bend over, one of the men hustled over and picked it up, handed it back to me. Another of the group got me a shopping cart. Another asked me if I needed help. I thanked them, we really looked at each other, I think at a level deeper than superficial appearances. I was ashamed of my initial thoughts. I wonder now who they really are, and what their choice of clothing and body decoration means to them.
I suffered a stroke over three years ago, and ever since have been experiencing acts of grace and mercy: at the post office, the store, the coffee shop, strangers hustle to offer a helping hand, rendering appearance irrelevant. Two years ago, I attended the National Disabled Veterans Winter Sports clinic, which I also blogged about. All the participants were U.S. veterans, all were disabled in some way, but acts of grace were expected in that venue. In front of Walmart? Not so much.
Look at the photo above. Who would not be nervous if a group that looked like that were walking towards them? Regardless of your ethnicity, or theirs (I would be just as nervous about a bunch of white skinheads with Nazi tattoos and accessories), we hold certain expectations and judgments about appearance, and the nervousness factors tend to be: young males; visible, especially facial, tattoos and piercings; baggy pants, especially when underwear is exposed; bandannas and backward baseball caps; dirty or torn clothing (though “artful” tears seem to be a part of young female fashion).
Yes, I AM stereotyping appearance. Even Jesse Jackson once said he would be a lot more nervous encountering at night a group of shabbily dressed black males than a group of well dressed white males. Our style-appearance is something we each control, and our decisions usually say a lot about the culture we value and how we want others to relate to us. There was a funny dialogue between Jerry and George on Seinfeld. Jerry always tended to dress very well, whereas George sometimes was a slob. This day, he was wearing sweatpants. Jerry’s take was,”George, wearing sweatpants during the day is for losers. You look like a person who has given up caring about your appearance.” George said he just wanted to be comfortable, but I agree with Jerry. How you show up in public is a statement about you.
But there are stereotypes that acknowledge very frequent cultural manifestations. Let’s take an example. Match the clothing and/or accessories with the following individuals: 1. white stock broker; 2. Russian mobster; 3. black African- studies professor; 4. MS-13 gang member. a. polyester track suit with heavy gold jewelry; b. facial tattoos and multiple piercings; c. Brooks Brothers suit; d. dashiki and agbada.
Unless you deliberately answer wrong to avoid charges of racism, you will have no trouble matching the (stereotypical) clothing with the category of person. You might say, “there is no right answer.” Okay, there ARE definitely wrong answers. Matching 1 with a, b or d is definitely wrong. Matching 2 with d is wrong, unless the mobster is infiltrating an African gang. Matching 3 with a or b is probably wrong. Matching 4 with c or d is wrong. Always? No, just 98% of the time. Does appearance tell us the truth about the individual? Not necessarily, but more oftenm than pure chance. There may be many exceptions. The white stock broker might actually act like a Russian mobster after hours. The Russian mobster and the MS-13 gang member might be gentle souls who “joined” the group to avoid being beaten or killed. The African studies prof might be a Nobel laureate economist or a pastor of an African Anglican church. However, when you are walking alone late at night in Baltimore or Detroit, you are more likely to respond to appearance in stereotypical ways, regardless of your race. Which appearance letter, a-d, will you be least nervous about? You could say “that depends on my race or gender,” and I think that’s disingenuous.
Nevertheless, my main point is that kindness can inhabit unexpected appearances. In front of or inside the store, post office or coffee shop, give kindness a chance. Or, get a cane and pretend to be disabled.