Wednesday, June 26, 2013

We Are All The Same

I have tested this out thousands of times.  I've talked to women and men both under and over 85 years old, I've spoken to numerous teenagers at all different ages and levels of maturity.  I've also spoken to people on holiday from all over the world, and I have come to one conclusion; we are all the same.  

The title is not a statement about cultural mores, style of dress, food choices or even musical tastes, this is about what seems to be a common thread in all of the people I have met.  It is a desire to be heard, appreciated, understood and respected.  

When I was going to university, I sat in my local coffee shop (hence the blog title) and did my schoolwork there for a change of scenery from my home.  It wasn't long before people in the neighborhood started coming over to talk to me.  I definitely have "one of those faces" that invites people over, even when my head is buried in a book!  

There's a mid-40's lady I'll call "Janine" (not her real name out of respect for her privacy) who tells me how I'm "the nicest Black person" she's ever met, because I take the time to talk to her honestly, in spite of her problems. Janine is depressed, gentle, profoundly insecure, kind hearted, and schizophrenic.  She dresses in outrageous colour and style combinations like black leggings with a textured effect all over them paired with a hot pink A-line tank shirt that's not quite long enough with a huge sherpa-type bolero jacket over it (even when it's too warm for a jacket), with a dated, large, light-pink silk flower clip in her hair on one side of her head and short grey boot.  She's been stuck in an on again-off again emotionally abusive relationship with a guy I'll call "Jim," who is an alcoholic with a manipulative personality, for about four years.  But she's got "such sexual chemistry with him" that she can't let go. That's one story.

On another day, I was studying some French homework (my degree is bilingual), and three teenage boys came into the coffee shop and sat down directly across from me, talking to each other in happy, but non-obtrusive tones.  You could tell at a look that the three were really good friends and I put my head back down to my work, after they were settled.  One of the boys with a nice face and brown hair, put his feet up on the seat in front of him.  I thought nothing of it; the place was not busy at that time and he seemed to be acting like a teenager to me. 

Unfortunately, the feet-on-the-seat was a problem for an older woman sitting exactly halfway between my chosen table and the double table where the boys were seated but off to my left and their right by about two table places.  For some reason I can only relegate to racism, the White lady said to the boy with his feet on the chair, that he "looked like he was on a flying carpet."  I looked up at her too-loud-to-ignore statement and then I realized that the boy she was speaking to was just the slightest possible bit darker in his complexion than his friends.  I didn't even notice, and this woman took it upon herself to point it out unprovoked.  Who says bullcrap like that?  To date, it is the most bizarre comment I have ever heard! 

The guy's two friends were red-faced and enraged in an instant.  I sat there with my mouth open, slack-jawed and at an utter loss for words, staring at him apologetically.  The guy sat up straight, looked at the woman and said: "Why would you say it like that?  Why wouldn't you just complain about my feet on the chair?  Why would you say that?  What you said sounds racist."  The whole time he was speaking, you could tell that he was trying to come to terms with what he (and everyone else who was listening) thought he was hearing.

"I am not a racist!  I am not a racist!"  Said the woman emphatically, but it was far too late.  A terrifically negative message had been conveyed utterly. 

The guy's friends were having none of that and started saying things like (I swear this is a real story I was witness to): "Do you have the charges?"  Friend "A" said, "Yeah, and I have the wires."  Friend "B" said.  Playing up an unfortunate stereotype to throw salt in the rude woman's face.  

The only reason I mention this story at all is because of the boy who was the hapless victim.  In a little while, all the hullabaloo calmed down and the boys talked in subdued tones, sadly.  When they were ready to leave, the targeted boy got up, walked over to the woman at a fair distance from her table and did something surprising; he simply said "You have a good afternoon, Ma'am," and he and his friends went outside for a (well-deserved) smoke.  

I was in complete awe at the level of character and class this 17-year-old boy displayed in the face of ugly bigotry.  His respectful attitude brought into even sharper relief the grotesqueness of this woman's conduct.  His name is "Adib" and he is a Lebanese-Canadian.  I saw him a handful of times after that incident.  Whatever work I was doing, I always set it down for five minutes to talk to the boy who had earned my respect.  

Those are only two of hundreds of stories.  I have spoken to so many people, in fact, that I have made good friends out of the coffee shop's staff.  I guess some of it has to do with me, in a way.  I am inherently respectful.  I treat everyone I meet with dignity, regardless of the fact that they may or may not have an issue.  I don't think we are supposed to judge people for their differences, I think that we are supposed to celebrate them.  

As altruistic as I sound, I hardly think that I am a saint.  When the time comes to answer and atone, I hope that I am "judged by the content of my character" (to borrow the quote fragment from Dr. M. L. King Jr.) and not by some trite behaviour at challenging times in my life, or worse still, because of something superficial over which I have no control.

Amanda Marshall said it best: "Everybody's got a story."  I have proved those words true thousands of times.  After all of the wonderful conversations and spiritual connections that I have had with veritable strangers, gently buried in behind the stories of pain and transformation, one thing is always true, if you peel away the exterior, we really are all the same underneath.