A few weeks ago I found myself in an uncomfortable place. I had gone to check out a book at the library near my childhood home, however, that location did not have the book that I was looking for. After looking up the book’s availability online, I set out for a different library branch only a few miles away. The library I was driving to was on the same road as the church I grew up in, and I knew that I would have enough familiarity with the area to eventually find my way home. Going to unfamiliar places can be uncomfortable for me, especially when I am alone, so I like to feel reassured that I can easily find my way back to a place of familiarity.
But I found that while the streets, trees, and stoplights surrounding the church all felt familiar… the community did not.
The community in which I grew up in was a space of privilege. The people in my community looked liked me, they were educated to the same level as my parents, and they mostly fell into a “middle class” economic status. While the church I grew up in was in a different area of town than my home and school, the attendees mostly fit those same characteristics. When I made that drive to the library, however, I quickly realized how little I actually understood about the community surrounding the church.
The community in which I grew up in is a space of privilege. The people in my community looked liked me, they were educated to the same level as my parents, and they mostly fell into a “middle class” economic status. While the church I grew up in was in a different area of town than my home and school, the attendees mostly fit those same characteristics. When I made that drive to the library, however, I quickly realized how little I actually understood about the community surrounding the church.
I got out of my car and walked to the entrance. A woman was walking only steps in front of me as she opened the door to enter the building. I expected her to hold the door open for me until I was close enough to hold it myself. She did not. She didn’t even try. She practically slipped through the door and I nearly walked straight into the glass.
My initial reaction of, “how rude” was accompanied by frustration and judgment toward the woman. Didn’t she understand politeness and courtesy?
My annoyance then moved to guilt.
I realized that I was imposing my privilege on this woman by passing judgement on her for not adhering to a certain standard to which I am accustomed.
I began to think about the concept of politeness generally. I thought about how many Americans seem to emphasize politeness as an important value. I began to wonder if this might be rooted in privilege. Do those in a position of privilege feel entitled to being treated politely? I certainly felt entitled to have the door held open for me and took offense when that act of courtesy did not occur.
Some people with privilege may mistake politeness for kindness. If they are not treated politely (by their definition), they may feel they are not being treated with kindness and take offense. Initially, I did not feel that I was treated kindly because I was not treated politely.
The woman who did not hold the door open was a person of color. Her clothes looked as if they might match the style of another country. I try to avoid assumptions about people I do not know, but based on the demographics and recent history of the community I was in, it is very possible that this woman migrated from another country to the U.S. Perhaps she did not grow up in a culture like mine, where politeness is highly valued. Perhaps her definition of politeness is different than my own.
As a feminist, I greatly value showing kindness to people of all backgrounds. But I also value cultural awareness. Kindness and politeness do not look the same in every culture. Kindness and politeness are not of high importance in every culture. That’s why it is important to treat others with patience and to consider their stories.
Sometimes it is difficult to put ourselves in unfamiliar and uncomfortable places. Sometimes it is challenging to understand people from different backgrounds than our own. But these places and interactions hold tremendous opportunities for growth and learning.