On the plane coming home from a weekend writer’s conference, I sat next to a very nice woman from Austin. She was unbelievably lovely, soft-spoken with a sweet Southern drawl. We talked, as passengers in tiny seats sharing breathing space do, about one thing & another. And I didn’t even realise that I had made certain assumptions — prejudiced assumptions — until Janet-from-Austin blew ’em up.
Digression: Dolly Parton was once asked, as she first began her library project, when she thought people would stop thinking speakers with Southern accents were stupid. Her reply doesn’t fit w/ my epiphany, but the question sure does. Because I had assumed that this lovely woman — too pretty, too Southern, a monied stay-at-home mother (probably a Southern debutante) — wasn’t unusually bright.
At which point Janet mentioned she has a law degree and a master’s. In education curriculum & design. And I am frantically going back over what I’ve said — hoping I wasn’t a jerk, or even ‘just’patronising. Please note: it’s not that degrees (or even education) define being ‘smart.’ But I had made the totally bogus assumption that Janet wouldn’t even care about advanced degrees. And law school and master’s degrees ARE hard. I also wouldn’t have thought she’d stick even one, much less both.
At that point, our conversation deepened, obviously. And I’m left to consider, later, prejudice & stereotyping. How insidious it is. How difficult to see in ourselves. I wonder, over the next several hours, if the people who turn on Obama for things Bush also did see any double standard. And which of Janet’s ‘markers’ shut the door to my heart, initially.
Was it because she had a Southern accent? I have several close friends — and family! — w/ Southern accents. I know they’re smart.
Was it her soft, tiny, voice? Maybe — that’s been a problem for me (big-booming-voice me) for a long time. But it’s a lesson I thought I’d learned long ago.
How about her loveliness? Many of my friends — brilliant women — are drop-dead beautiful. Again, I know better. I don’t think it was any single one of these, really.
As for staying at home w/ her kids? I did that for years, and was grateful to have the luxury.
I can only assume it was gestalt: the Southern deb image. A stereotype? Sure. And one — ironically — that Janet really didn’t fit, once I visited w/ her. Yes, she has money. No, she doesn’t work outside the home. Instead, she’s considering returning to school for her doctorate. Because she’d like to teach. Something I relate to on every level.
So here’s what my beginner heart learned:
Next time you meet someone, consider this: are you — as Pema Chodron says — proceeding without intention? Listening w/out a filter? I would have said yes. But I wasn’t (obviously). And I suspect this is not the first time. Next time I meet a stranger, I will take a deep breath, and listen openly. Proceed without intention. For Janet’s sake. She deserves that consideration. Better late, right?