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