(Many) years ago, after leaving University, one of my first jobs was working in Clinton Cards. Hardly what I imagined when I donned the gown and hat thing and collected my scrolled certificate, but there we are. Not just any old branch of the card giant though. This was Wood Green, North London, and, I was reliably told, we were better paid than other branches, due to the fact that we were likely to be held up and stabbed by ne’re do wells at least 3 times a week.
Needless to say this never happened in the 6 months I spent there and, inevitably, I learned more about human behaviour in that short time than throughout my entire 3 year Psychology degree.
One of my co-workers, let’s call her Mona, was a ‘woman of a certain age’. Immaculately turned out, even in a brown and orange nylon-fest, she’d been there forever, was revered by her co-workers and commanded the most coveted area of the shop…. the soft toy section. She was, on the surface at least, pleasant, witty, and very chatty, which is always a good thing when you spend most of the day stooped over a card rack, growling about people who take the wrong envelope and rearrange without a second thought for the poor prole who has to tidy up after them.
Mona and I were ‘break buddies’, we got to sit together in the airless cupboard that doubled as a staff room, drinking tea and eating marmalade on toast. I seem to recall making most of the tea but y’know, she was practically royalty.
Gradually things changed, the witty comments turned to diatribes, the observations on who we were to keep the closest eyes on always seemed to focus on a particular section of the community and the bile overflowed into my tea, making me sick.
The problem was I’d done nothing to invite this. I didn’t nod sympathetically when she ranted about all that was wrong with ‘this country today’, I gave no impression that I might in any way share her views, I didn’t ask for her opinion or even counter what she said- I knew better than to invite debate with such seasoned hatred.
I got my head down and respected her right to her opinion on the shop floor but here, in my break, in my escape, it bugged me, it coiled inside and made me want to take that bile, wrap it around a soft toy and shove it down her scrawny throat.
But of course I didn’t do that. What I did was ever-so-politely ask her to desist. I let her know that I didn’t agree that it was all the fault of ‘the darkies’ and that her opinion offended me and would she mind, ever so much, not going on about it to me? Not aggressive, not haughty, just me being me and hoping for some mutual respect.
What I got was a meeting with the manager where I was reprimanded for the fact that I’d made a valued member of staff so upset that she’d had to leave the soft toy section in tears to report my unreasonable behaviour.
And that was when I saw it. Saw that it’s apparently ok to harbour xenophobic views, ok to pollute other people’s airspace with these unfounded views based only on fear, ignorance and hate, but not ok to be called on them, not ok to be asked to question them. If I disagree, I’m a bleeding heart liberal, or lost in PC-World or just blinkered and disrespecting of Mona and all her kind’s right to express themselves.
So now, when it happens what do I do? I find it really hard. I’m a long way from perfect but I am open-minded and open-hearted. I’ve travelled to some amazing places and been shown incredible kindness by strangers, and if you ever needed help I’d do my best to provide it. So I find it very difficult to understand the fear, the irrationality, and (at times) the sheer stupidity directed at people who look or behave a bit differently.
We have a motto in our house:
Different People, Different Things
It’s a good catch-all, and one I reminded myself of when I was mulling recent events. I don’t know who’s right (NB, I do really, but I’m being magnanimous), but Mona, you know what? I forgive you your horrendously shortsighted views, I’ll even defend your right to them and, should we ever meet again, I’ll make you tea and marmalade on toast and refrain from poking you in the eye. And if that’s haughty or arrogant…. sue me, you miserable old cow!