Spitting Prejudice

No wise man can have a contempt for the prejudices of others; and he should even stand in a certain awe of his own, as if they were aged parents and monitors. They may in the end prove wiser than he.

~ William Hazlitt (1778 – 1830)

“Daddy? What does prejudice mean?”

She did her phonetic best, pronouncing it PREE-jew-DYCE. It is on this week’s spelling list and she needed to write a sentence using each word. And she was stuck.

I pronounced it correctly for her and then, in a rather nonchalant display of parental negligence, dropped the ball and told her to “Look it up.” I’m not sure where it went from there; I think her big brother might have lent a hand eventually, and mom, the official homework-checker, must have approved for my daughter headed outside to play not long after our short exchange.

I didn’t think much about it at the time, how I’d blown a teachable moment. She was in a hurry to get done, both the activity and the complementary noise levels were high, so I brushed it aside. There’s always time to talk about prejudices, right?

And then this morning I heard about The Sign.

A little background is in order: Fort Wayne, Indiana, the modest-sized Midwestern city where I hang my hat, is also home to the largest population of Burmese refugees in North America. The influx began in earnest in 1990, and though the immigration effort has met its share of bureaucratic stumbling blocks, many of those seeking refuge here – from the sprawling squalor of the refugee camps and the religious persecution that continues in Myanmar to this day – have found our town welcoming and relatively tolerant.

Then last week, an employee at a local laundromat hung up a sign. It’s there, at the top of this post, and reads: “For Sanitary Purposes There Are No Burmese People Allowed”. I don’t know the specific incident(s) that prompted the sign. The author of the first article I linked to claims that the instigating issue may have been the Burmese tradition of chewing areca nuts wrapped in betel leaves, sometimes mixed with tobacco, and spitting out the juices. It’s a cultural thing which, for those who practice it, carries great significance.

Now, for the record, I don’t like spit either. And were I to engage in a culturally-significant act that involved spitting, I would practice it in the comfort of my own home, a spittoon at the ready, or in some place designated for such observances. Since I don’t know much about this particular ritual, I can’t really comment as to whether it must be practiced at all times. Perhaps it is habit forming, and some people just can’t keep from chewing and spitting, even while doing their laundry. Obviously, more research is necessary.

One thing is clear, however: If it became an issue at this laundromat, then more appropriate steps could have been taken.

Instead, someone saw fit to hang up a sign. It came, and went, with little notice from the public. As I understand it, no one said much of anything: not the owner of the laundromat; not the employee; no one representing the Burmese population; not the health department. It could have been an incident that just went away, largely unnoticed. But things don’t work that way these days: A local resident noticed, found a picture of the sign, and started a Facebook group that is now 608-members strong.

Make that 609. I joined this morning.

Why? I don’t wash my clothes at a laundromat. Even in this modest-sized town, I am far removed from the area where the laundromat operates and from which it draws its business, from where many of the Burmese refugees make their home. I don’t have to be around spit.

And just how much weight does joining a Facebook group have, anyway?

Perhaps the answer lies in the simplicity of being a number. One of those who “shouts” that this sort of naïve, gut-level, scattershot reaction won’t be excused in our town. One who is willing to offer a positive alternative and a modicum of support against those who, by leaving comments here and there, claim that Burmese people – all of them – are nasty, smell bad, and carry tuberculosis.

I wish I was kidding.

The corporate owner of the laundromat offered an apology of sorts, but the comments (many of which appeared on the various news stories I read and have since been removed) tell the tale: We are a prejudiced people.

And maybe that’s the point of all this. How do we define prejudice? How do we recognize it, in our selves and in others. In this case, is it prejudiced to say you don’t want to walk in spit while doing your laundry? Or clean it up as a part of your thankless job? Is it prejudiced to admit that you don’t want to, and shouldn’t have to, be around people who do occasionally spit where they shouldn’t? Is the outrage behind the fact that the employee called out one particular ethnic group an outrage against prejudice?

Are prejudices ever justified? Are they ever wise? Useful?

Unlike last night, when I chose to brush the topic aside, I now have plenty to talk about. To think about and consider.

Do you have any prejudices that, though usually dormant, occasionally awaken? I look forward to reading your thoughts below . . .

UPDATE!

Here are some additional news articles about the incident that have been published since this post went live . . .

Sources Say Some Burmese People Spit and Urinate in a Ricker’s Store

Assimilation Crucial for Fort Wayne Burmese

Indiana Business Apologizes for ‘No Burmese’ Sign

Sources Say Some Burmese People Spit And Uriniate In A Ricker’s Store

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27 thoughts on “Spitting Prejudice

  1. See…the sign could have been more general like, “no spitting allowed at this laundromat” although to most people that seems like common sense and respect.

    If they are refugees then they came over here for something better right? So they should reach out and see what is respectful in your town as much as we can respect their traditions right?

    I have a prejudice in that. In the fact that people come over here shouting prejudice to those who are legally here telling us how we should respect their traditions and where they come from…but they don’t flip it around and think…hmmmm maybe I should respect their traditions and way of life also.

    Again exceptions and all that.

    I always seem to think after I’ve done something for my kids that I should have slowed down and made it a teaching moment… We do what we can right? Hehehe

    • The thing is, many of these immigrants have adapted quite easily. Local organizations are helping in this regard. What’s interesting is that no one has spoken out about this incident from within the community. Not that I’ve seen anyway, and I scoured the net for any such statement at length this morning. Not even on a local advocacy site. Nothing has been mentioned. It will be interesting to see where this goes . . .

  2. When in Rome. You’re in America now so stop spitting in laundromats. Bake a fucking apple pie, buy some stocks, and whistle Yankee Doodle. Let’s start playing for the home team.

    • This is an echo of many of the comments I’ve read today, though none were expressed so eloquently.

      😉

      Does this sort of response implicate you as a prejudiced person?

      Good to hear from you, dude. It’s been too long . . .

  3. I never thought of myself as a prejudiced person. I grew up embarrassed by my grandparent’s antiquated views on other cultures and argued the side of the foreigner when so many in my hick town high school were proclaiming the French evil. “Freedom fries and freedom ticklers” (they were teenage boys after all) So when I moved to Mexico for what was meant to be an extended stay (that thankfully only ended up being for a month) I was amazed at my reaction. Where in the USA you see everthing in at least two languages now nothing down there was labeled in anything but Spanish. The people working on my husband’s job were sabatoging the machinery (sand in the oil, stealing random parts, etc.). No one worked an 8 hour day and anything was an excuse to stop work.

    Returning home I couldn’t help but see the difference in the people who were here legally as opposed to the ones who weren’t

    So my answer? I’m a little bit prejudiced against the illegal aliens who come here and refuse to learn the language, get free health care, live off our taxes and take the jobs your average American can’t afford to take therefore lowering our chances of making a decent wage.

    I have no problem with other cultures, am fascinated by them in fact, but I just can’t stand it when they move to our country and try to change the way we live to make it more convenient for themselves.

    • Thanks for chiming in.

      As I stated in a reply to an earlier comment, this incident is not being stirred, to the best o f my knowledge, by anyone within the Burmese community.

      Just to clarify, for the sake of others: Many of those who are moving here are doing so at the urging of those within the community who are helping them escape the persecution they have endured in their own country. They have integrated well and very seldom does one hear complaints about them being here. In fact, many within our area consider it a privilege to have them. Yes, many take the crap jobs, but they work hard. Several even have positions within various social service fields, just to help others like them make the transition. And though their numbers are significant, I doubt that their presence in a city of this size is making a negative dent economically.

      Again, thanks for your candid comment . . . it’s always an honor.

  4. Some framework:

    My dictionary describes a prejudice as . . .

    prej·u·dice

    n.
    1.
    a. An adverse judgment or opinion formed beforehand or without knowledge or examination of the facts.

    b. A preconceived preference or idea.

    2. The act or state of holding unreasonable preconceived judgments or convictions. See Synonyms at predilection.

    3. Irrational suspicion or hatred of a particular group, race, or religion.

    4. Detriment or injury caused to a person by the preconceived, unfavorable conviction of another or others.

    tr.v. prej·u·diced, prej·u·dic·ing, prej·u·dic·es
    1. To cause (someone) to judge prematurely and irrationally. See Synonyms at bias.

    2. To affect injuriously or detrimentally by a judgment or an act.

    So, is prejudice too loaded a word to use when discussing the above-mentioned situation? If so, how would you describe the actions by the employee of the laundromat?

    The reason I ask is that it is clear that the sign came up AFTER some series of acts occurred. But it is the reaction of others, things I read in the comments I mentioned earlier in the post, that got me thinking about prejudice.

    Carry on . . .

  5. this is a tough one. i grew up in minnesota and now i live in the south. my kids go to a private 98 percent all white school in a town where the population is 50 percent african american. (the public schools here are some of the worst in the country)

    i lived in the washington, dc/baltimore area for about five years. i prefer the city. i like the diversity. i’ve traveled enough to get how different we all are.

    yet i’ve got my kids in this secluded place and i worry about teaching them tolerance and acceptance and what words like racist and prejudice mean.

    i think we all have prejudices and we have to kind of be aware when they pop up and then take a good look at ourselves and make sure we are living the way we want to live and treating other people respectfully and the way we want to be treated.

  6. not so sure if this is a case of prejudice or not. it is quite possible that the sign poster is not a clever, well-educated person, and does not communicate well through, ummmm, signs.

    but then again, maybe i’m harboring preconceived notions about folks who work in laundromats.

  7. I am so relieved and grateful to you for taking a scare.

    This shit scares me.

    Genocide begins with that sign, and no I’m not exaggerating.

  8. Komatsu kind of said what I wish I had the stones to say. Here’s my beef — the better life you are seeking in America is quite frankly more easily attainable if you learn the effing American language. Is it the most perfect language in the world? The most beautiful? Hell, is it even the easiest to learn? No. No. And no! But you know what, it is the language of choice of our fair land and should you wish to avail yourself to the fruits there of — learn to speak it. Why is it my responsibility to find you an interpreter so that you can buy a pack of smokes at the local Winn Dixie!?

    Other than that, no — I’m not prejudiced at all.

  9. I’m with Ann on this one, as history around the world has shown us again and again. As always, you’ve handled a delicate topic with diplomacy and openness. Well done.

  10. Whether they admit it or not, everyone has prejudices. It’s how you react to them, whether you take the time to examine them and call yourself out on them. We are steeped in a prejudicial society from the time we’re born, I don’t think there’s any escaping it though I have a lot of hope for my youngest’s generation. His pre-K class is so diverse…my classes in school were first all black kids with me the lone white kid, and then ALL white kids when we moved to the suburbs. Every group has prejudices, even the oppressed.

    You have to expose them to the light, consider them, the reasons why we have them, are they true, are they fair, are they good or bad…just don’t accept them. That’s how we do it in this multicultural family, anyway.

  11. Cultural intolerance is a two way street. When one chooses to relocate to a new country, one with different social norms, one needs to accept the differences as much as they are asking to have their differences accepted.

    When I was a kid growing up, our social studies teachers always made a point of mentioning that the difference between the US approach to immigration and the Canadian approach is that the US is/was a melting pot while Canada was a mosaic. The implication was/is that in the US immigrants are expected to renounce citizenship and ties to their former country and become American (as one commenter put it, buy stocks and bake a fucking apple pie), whereas in Canada they were encouraged to integrate their culture into their Canadian lives.

    That being said, I think there is a line (a very wide, very fuzzy line) that needs to be drawn in terms of tolerating different social norms. Just because tobacco smoking is prevalent where you come from doesn’t make it your right, regardless of cultural or religious significance, to light up in the mall food court; or physically if striking your spouse is common back home doesn’t mean it isn’t domestic violence here. (Note that I believe these are more extreme examples of the problem outlined here.)

    Ultimately, the sign was insensitive. Had it indicated that spitting was not permitted inside the building (or even in front of it; hell some places in Canada now have no smoking perimeters painted 20ft around doorways), it would be different, but to say that one racial group is banned? That’s just plain ignorant.

  12. I think that prejudice as defined as a preconceived idea or notion is unavoidable. As someone mentioned, even the oppressed have them.

    Where it becomes murky is when people act against a particular group based upon a prejudice. I do agree with several commenters that certain behaviors in public are not an automatic right. There were many other things that this business could have done to deal with the problem. Focus on the specific behavior that is objectionable, but don’t automatically single out a specific group of people.

    Kudos to you for posting this. I think we all can see historical parallels where similar type signs and persecution of a particular group has had horrific consequences. I for one would not want to stand idly by. The biggest danger is when good people do nothing.

  13. I love Betel-nut ! I chewed in while in Taiwan. Euphoric, warming, invigorating, mildly mind altering and pleasantly addictive. Problem is, it causes mouth cancer worse than plain chew. I went through bad withdrawal on returning to the states. It is so sad that all my favorite vices are bad for me. Another proof that no god made us with loving care.

    This week I got accused of making an assumption. They are like stereotypes, we use them all the time. Inaccurate assumptions and stereotypes are the issue, particularly evidence resistant ones. I imagine the same goes for prejudices — no matter how politically incorrect that sounds.

  14. Why is it my responsibility to find you an interpreter so that you can buy a pack of smokes at the local Winn Dixie!?

    Because we are stronger when we work together. If you live here than you should learn how to speak English. I haven’t any problem with that. I haven’t any problem with people who try to learn English, my problem is with those who refuse.

    The thing is, most of the time you can’t tell who refuses and who is working at it. So unless I have a reason to believe otherwise I figure that every one is just learning.

  15. I immediately cringe when I see uneducated people of ANY race talk to their children in ugly voices, hit them or scream at them. I work in a children’s hospital and I see a LOT of this. You can also see it at any local Walmart… or any public place. Do they not recognize the fact that their kids are learning this treatment and will then carry it on to the eventual grandkids? Makes me CRAZY. I immediately form an opinion about any of those people…

  16. Oh man, yes, I totally do. And I think most people do to some degree, whether we like it or not. There’s a whole lot of us on this planet, we’re all different in some ways and the same in some ways, and we all have ways of responding to the ways that other people are different from us and the same as us. Okay, that’s not the best sentence I’ve ever written, but you get the idea. I think it’s a matter of recognizing our own prejudices and dealing with them in a way that’s constructive. Which, of course, is often a lot easier said than done.

    Hell, I have prejudices against certain kinds of white people and I’m about as lily white as they come.

  17. That is really horrifying. Especially that is was so unremarked upon.

    If you want to read a phenomenal book on the process of acculturation, I highly recommend, “Outcasts United.”

    Yes, it’s a disgusting habit and can’t be allowed to continue, but I wonder if anyone ever stopped to explain to these people that a) we really frown upon it here and b) suggest some alternatives. They may not even know how much they are offending us.

  18. It is unfortunate that the employee chose to post the sign worded such as it was. I think it would have been handled better if the offending “spitters” had been told verbally in a kind manner that their behavior was not appropriate in that business. Then, if they continued to ignore the request, the sign could have simply stated that spitting would not be tolerated and offending persons would be asked to vacate the property. There was no need to focus on one ethnic group, even if they were the ones performing the behavior.

    This is a post worth passing on…

  19. I know it’s hard to believe that in today’s day and age someone would post something like that, but I’ve seen signs like this in Houston too. In fact, I know places in East Texas where if you are a certain race you will be refused service, or worse. Instances in the past have been well publicized.

    Where I grew up there was little in the way of ethnic diversity so, true to our nature of fearing what we don’t know, the prevailing attitude towards other races and cultures was that of the stereotypes, and we acted accordingly. It wasn’t until the Army until I learned differently. Working with with people from all backgrounds and then living in Korea for a year can break down barriers real quick.

    Still, the stereotypes do exist in all races and cultures. After the influx of Katrina refugees moving to Houston, crime skyrocketed. Because of government subsidies refugees could afford all manner of apartments including the higher-end loft where I lived. As Katrina victims moved in, at least once a week someone would have their place or cars broken into, my girlfriend at the time was attacked in the parking lot by a coked out Katrina transplant, and my future mother-in-law was almost kidnapped (had it not been for mace she would have).

    In such cases, where the stereotypes impose on you personally, it’s hard not to see it as a race thing. And yes, I will have to admit that a very small part of me harbors prejudices, but I think we all do whether we’re willing to be honest with ourselves. The examples I’ve mentioned above make it easy to give into those prejudices; however, I try to remind myself that those examples are not about race and are more about the human condition and their environment.

    When it comes down to it, my overall attitude if that we should celebrate our various heritages, customs and diversity, while at the same time accepting the shared humanity that unites us all.

    Very good post. Thanks.

  20. Of course this sign is prejudiced. Look at it. It says “no Burmese people allowed.” Even if it is because they’re chewing and spitting this weird tobacco, the laundromat handled it completely inappropriately. You put up a sign that says “No tobacco, no spitting.” But what you don’t do is mirror the Jim Crow laws!

    Do ALL Burmese people chew this tobacco? I highly doubt it. In fact, I’m willing to bet some white people also partake in similar activities. Are they being banned?

    I fully admit, I’d be turned off if I saw this happening in the laundromat. It’s gross. But there are better, more constitutional ways to handle the problem. You don’t go around barring certain ethnicities from entering your establishment.

  21. Very thought-provoking. Especially as it relates to those great parenting opportunities (misses) that come and go before we recognize them for what they are. I have no doubt your follow-up discussions on this topic will be meaningful.

    I grew up in Baton Rouge, Louisiana during the 60’s. I know about prejudice. I believe individual prejudices are an unfortunate part of our human nature. Collective prejudices are dangerous.

    Thank you for bringing this topic greater attention and consideration.

  22. I am prejudiced towards people from Indiana.

    Not you. You’re fine. Glorious, even.

    But that doesn’t change it. I really am. I’m just fucking weird about Indiana.

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