I watched her shovel the snow in fits and starts with a 3-year-old boy trailing behind, and I felt sorry for her. She was at home during most days with the little one, while her husband, I presumed, was out at work. I never saw him shovel. Rarely did I see him at all, to be honest.
I spent most of the morning laying out salt, waiting, then clearing our modest driveway and sidewalk. The snowfall took little pauses here and there, but it never completely stopped. We saw three feet come down in no time at all.
“Wanna finish mine?” she called out from across the street.
I smiled, neighbor-like.
“Maybe your beau could stop on the way home and pick up some salt. It really helps to break up the ice.”
“Oh, he’s inside. Works from home. Don’t have to leave for work when you work on a laptop.”
What a jerk, I though, sitting inside at his computer while his wife is trying to clear off a sky-load of snow while simultaneously calming an irritated child.
“Well, I can pick you up some salt if I’m out by the hardware store,” I offered.
“Only if convenient,” she said politely.
She carried on for a few more minutes, digging out a single path from the front door to the buried car. By then, her son was in full tantrum-mode, so she picked him up and went inside.
Once I cleared an escape route for our car, my husband and I set off to the store to pick up a few snowed-in essentials. I couldn’t let go of this situation. I was so angry at her work-at-home husband. I though he was negligent, and mean. I started to concoct this story about their imbalanced, destined-to-fail relationship. I was on a roll, and I didn’t let go of it for the entire drive.
“You should curse him,” my husband joked.
“I just want to shame him,” I said.
When we returned home, I picked up our well-used, metal shovel and walked across the street. The sun had set by then, but the radiant light from a mini-mountain range of lawns and cars roofs provided plenty enough light to see.
I’d decided — not out of neighborly kindness, but out of spite — to do this man’s work. Compassion was not my motivation; I was fueled by a passive-aggressive vengeance. I wanted to stick it to him. And it wasn’t without justification, I believed. There were many, horrible things that could have befallen this family had the snow been left on the ground.
What if their son had broken his leg? What if he had an allergic reaction to some new food? How did they plan to get to the hospital when their car was completely blocked in? Had he even thought of that? What kind of father was this man?! His negligence was going to lead to other people’s injury. I was certain of it.
My internal rant continued until the driveway and sidewalk were clear. My forehead was drenched with sweat, and my wool sweater completely soaked through. I was a mess, but it was worth it.
I shoveled the snow leading up to their porch, and as I reached the last step I heard the door open. I looked up, and there she stood, baby on her hip.
Pride. Self-satisfaction. This was my moment.
“Did you do the sidewalk?” she asked, surprised.
“And the driveway,” I said, trying to sound somewhat matter-of-fact about it. “You never know when you’re going to need to get your car out. There could be an emergency, or something.”
She pointed inside. “He’s going to have a liquor store emergency pretty soon.” She smirked.
Well that wasn’t at all what I was thinking about. I tried to brush it off.
Then, she said the words that threw everything into a tailspin.
“I was just going to wait for a high-functioning Mexican to come by tomorrow and do it. That’s what usually happens.”
A high-functioning Mexican? A…high…functioning…Mexican?
My mind went blank. I couldn’t believe what I’d heard. I was speechless.
I stood in the cold; shocked and sweaty. She offered to bake me muffins for my trouble, and I muttered that she didn’t have to do that. I couldn’t stomach the thought. Then, she said a polite “goodbye” and went inside.
She wasn’t helpless; that was just “gender stereotyping” on my part. And he wasn’t a tyrant. They were just a young, married couple with a driveway full of white privilege, and they were waiting for someone else to come take care of it for them.
Turns out, that someone else was me.
I felt stupid, and ashamed of myself. I’d done all of this to prove a point, but it was me who was given a lesson.
Act without compassion, and you will experience an absence of compassion. Seek to shame another, and you will experience shame. Place another man’s negligence on trial, and you will come to see how you, yourself, have been negligent.
Can you see any other lessons in this experience?
You have more insight than I, Teo – I would just your neighbors are a**h*les. 😉
The word did cross my mind, Natalie. I guess I just figured there was something deeper in this experience that was worth examining.
Thanks for the comment.
I won’t call you out on the sexism because clearly you see it now, and there’s no point whipping a dead horse. I will say that plenty of people have made the same assumption you did – if I’m shoveling, or doing any other kind of manual labor, it’s clearly because my husband is deficient in some way. And maybe in their eyes, he is: He’s disabled, and I’m physically stronger than he is, regardless. I have higher stamina and better coordination, especially considering his uncontrollable shaking in the hands due to his anxiety disorder. He is still fighting for his disability claim to be recognized by the government. In the meantime he is a stay-at-home husband and I work. Hegemonic views of masculinity and femininity exist in our culture, but I couldn’t care less about them, and I wish he could care less. He feels beaten down by the Male Success Standard. He should be working, because the value of a man is in his job, right? He should be doing manly things of manliness, like opening all my pickle jars, because the value of a man is in his physical strength, right? It doesn’t help that people, some of whom do know us and some of whom do not, including his own family, relentlessly enforce these standards and work to make him feel even more worthless, because wouldn’t it be EASIER if we had two incomes? Wouldn’t we be in a better position if we BOTH were working? It’s not that I, the woman, should stop working, clearly, but he, the man, should be working as well. What do we mean a second job would barely pay for daycare? No, despite that, both of us should be working, and if we insist that one of us should stay home with our son, shouldn’t that be me?
Sexism irritates and aggravates me, but it hurts him. In this case, it hurt you physically and emotionally. You let it drag you into doing this work out of a sense of righteous indignation that traditional gender roles were being trampled upon. You spent money and time and literally sweated over it. There’s a lesson there about how hard we work to ensure that people fit into the boxes we assign for them. There’s a lesson about being unwilling to examine assumptions about people we don’t even know. And there was another lesson there for people of color – you can’t trust white people. Every time you think it’s okay to assume the best of us, every time you think we might be sane and polite and decent neighbors, one of us will whallop you across the head with our unexamined racism. Hey, look, you extended a helping hand, let’s bite it! Hahahaha, he’ll never do that again. No lessons were learned on the part of the white couple. After all, we can get away with that shit in this post-racial society of ours. So in the end, the job of learning tough lessons fell on you, while this woman’s blithe assumptions were reinforced. And that deserves attention drawn to it, as long as we’re talking about hegemony.
Some of us work on examining our privilege, but even we say and do stupid shit because our privilege blinds us to the saturation of racism in our society. And I’m sorry that’s the lesson that gets driven home over and over and over. I’m sorry even those of us who try to be aware aren’t trustworthy. And I’m doubly sorry that we still live in a culture where ignorant people can say things like “High-functioning Mexicans” with the implicit assumption that everyone around them will be agree. That’s our failure and it’s inexcusable.
Wonderful comment, Sonneillon. Thank you for your raw honesty, for unpacking the subject of privilege and race even further, and for issuing a call to a higher standard of integrity. Much appreciated.
I did write a response to you. It was meant to be short, but I don’t do short very well. tl;dr – I think maintaining a high standard of personal integrity is something every majority owes every minority, because holding ourselves to a high standard is the only way we can even begin to unpack all the cultural -isms we have been programmed with. I think if we want justice for all people (which I do), we have to be willing to be brutally honest with ourselves about our axes of prejudice and our axes of privilege, how they interact, and how we learn lessons from oppression that we fail to apply to privilege.
I can’t get over what she said to you. If she was waiting for someone to take pity on her and do something I sure wouldn’t have said that to the person that helped me.
Plus, the statement she made is racist.
But, I understand your point. You felt your reason for doing the work was wrong. I would have to agree with you that attitude has a lot to do witht the results of your actions.
I pointed out to someone a couple of weeks ago that racists generally don’t know they are racists. He was “floored” by this statement: he supposed, then, that perverts and kleptomaniacs don’t know they have a problem. He immediately made a connection between racism and mental illness.
I don’t think racism or sexism is a mental illness, at least in most cases. I think it’s a natural reaction to unearned social privilege.
I’ve been thinking about gift economies lately, and I think it is possible to have earned social privilege in the form of “social capital.” For instance, Teo, your willingness to be neighborly and help out with the sidewalk shoveling, though abused by your neighbor, is a way of earning social capital. Indeed, it elicited the offer of a return-gift: muffins. Which you declined.
I’m playing with a thought here, and I may be way off base. But play with me for a moment.
I think the underlying emotion beneath unearned privilege is shame. Racists, and sexists, are at root ashamed of their privilege. I think that applies to the 1% in a capitalist economy, too. The natural response to shame and embarrassment is to rationalize. And that rationalization is what turns into racism, or sexism, or the smirking ass-hattedness of the Wall Street suits who go down to try to bait the #OWS dirty hippies (usually quite unsuccessfully, from the clips I’ve seen.) It’s the same principle as insecurity usually underlying arrogance.
In the natural gift economy, it’s psychologically necessary to discharge gift-debt: you can’t live with a debt hanging over you. I remember the feeling when I would go out for a night on the town with the owner of a small company I worked for. He made the Big Bucks, so he always paid for everything. I stopped enjoying our get-togethers, because every movie, every beer, every tip and dollar dropped on some diversion, came from him to me. Every outing saddled me with a debt in social capital, and created a power-differential. Working for him was not a problem: he provided money and access to the marketplace, I provided products for him to sell. But the endless receiving of unwanted gifts in a social setting was unbearable.
To be white, male, and heterosexual is all an accident of birth. That it should convey such extreme privilege in our society, unasked and unearned, creates an imbalance of gifting. As a white, male heterosexual, I’m a little uncomfortable around anyone who is non-white, non-male, non-heterosexual who has also been denied the unearned privilege I get automatically. I’m very uncomfortable if they make an issue of it, and the shape of that discomfort is shame. I have to actively resist my first reaction, my childish response, which is to rationalize my shame: Well, you may be Mexican, but you must also be lazy, or you’d be doing better for yourself. You may be homosexual, but do you have to be such a flamer and make such a spectacle? You’re a woman, and now you’re getting all hysterical about this equality thing: how typical of a woman. All of these statements say, “I’m not ashamed.” Because in reality I am.
That’s why, I think, racist and sexist comments are so inane. A “high-functioning Mexican?” No sane, intelligent person would come up with that as a matter of sober analysis. It’s a cheap rationalization that doesn’t bear any examination at all. I think most stereotypes come from the same source.
Wherever these inane comments come from, she threw it out there for a reason: it served some immediate psychological purpose for her.
Here’s what I’m thinking. You gifted her a sidewalk-shoveling; ill-spiritedly, perhaps, but it is still a substantial gift. She had no ready way to repay the gift; she has never been taught how to pass on the gift graciously, perhaps, and she had no immediate way to repay you. It shamed her, so her first response was to denigrate the gift: oh, this is just something any high-functioning (but stupid) Mexican would do for us anyway, you needn’t have bothered. She used a racial slur, but the immediate threat was the social debt you put her into: she was negotiating down its value, and using a racial slur to do so. Then she turned around and tried to gift back what was left of her debt, with an offer of muffins.
One of the deeper personal values of cultivating a habit of charity is that it gives you an “out” for such unwanted debts. I’m badly out of the practice of charity, myself, but had you done such a thing for me when I was in practice, it would have been a simple matter for me to accept your gift graciously, and discharge my debt indirectly to someone else: which is how viable gift economies actually work. It isn’t tit-for-tat barter.
Cultivating a habit of gratitude also provides a way to absorb an unexpected gift. In gift-economy terms, you might consider gratitude to be the bank vault for holding social capital. You absorb the gift, without the immediate need to discharge it. Then, from your gratitude, you can gift back later.
I feel sorry for your neighbor. I’m going to guess she has no regular practice of charity or gratitude, and she is deeply ashamed of her unearned racial privilege. Your gift did bring her shame to the surface, and she reacted.
You just brought up a whole new thing that makes complete sense. Shame leading to rationalization — and the shame is so deeply buried that people won’t even be able to admit to themselves that they feel it.
Which also can explain the immediate knee-jerk reaction people can have when first introduced to the concept of privilege. (Though, frankly, I actually do see the term privilege to be problematic in actually teaching people to stop being racist, sexist, ableist, etc, as well as a lot of the social justice vernacular — but that’s a whole different kettle of fish, which I won’t get into here.)
In my opinion, an immediate calling to task of her for her comment would not have been amiss.
Yes – I could have done that.
I love this line:
“They were just a young, married couple with a driveway full of white privilege, and they were waiting for someone else to come take care of it for them.”
Thank you, Thorn.
As I spend more time in reflection on this subject, I find I’m even less certain about anything. My proclivity to judge feels so deeply ingrained in me that even as I seek to rise above it, I bring it along with me. There are more layers to this than I could unpack in 800 words. I have a feeling I’ll return to the subject in future posts.
I appreciate the support.
Not all judgement is bad, nor particularly incorrect. Can you propose an alternative meaning behind the phrase “High-Functioning Mexican” that doesn’t belie underlying privilege?
Robert, I fully agree with regards to the woman’s hideous comment. I only point out that we *still* don’t know the whole story. No, judgement can be quite useful at times. And it still doesn’t mean we know what is really going on with the woman and her partner.
And I still love that line. Driveway full of white privilege…
Teo, I am amazed at the depth of the comments you have had thus far on your blog; far more wisdom and reflection than I can muster, and a testament to how fervent your readers are for working with you to make sense of your experiences (and our own ones in the process).
I have been mulling over this post all day, thinking about their reaction, your reaction, and my reaction to both. I have a vision of how all this played out, though this is based on my own biases and hang-ups, of course. Mind you, I find some of the comments that your readers shared here to be insightful, and as issues of hegemony and power + positionality are paradigms that hold deep significance for me, I approach this in way that is saddled with my own assumptions . . . or not. As I am a somewhat recent reader of your work, I can’t say I know much about you beyond what you publish here. In this way, I do not know your race, or age, or socio-economic status, ethnicity, education, profession, political inclinations, or the like. Thus, I do not have them to frame my assumptions. Of course, even knowing any of these things I would still have layers of assumptions based on those (and more) factors, as well as my experiences with any of those classifications. In other words, I am left only with your words, and am conscious of all these ways of interpreting the experience and your reactions with it (or at least those reactions you shared).
All this said, rather than get myself into the box of assuming I know why your neighbors (who, interestingly, you do not seem to know much about) said or did what they did. Instead, I want to consider a little more about why you shared this at all.
Let me explain.
My background is Catholic and Republican, or at least it was for many years. The frame of it to me means it is always our fault, we get what we deserve, the victim gets blamed for being the victim, work hard enough and you will not be the victim, and all that sort of business. In this way, I am amazed that the shame you experienced and discussed is something that you decided to share at all. In many ways, this can be an empowering experience by allowing yourself to share and process with (and hopefully make meaning from) a wider group than yourself. I know that had this happened to me, I would have kept my head down and continued to kick myself far into next week, justifying it in some way or another if anyone found out about it. I do share some things in my own writing and blog, though not experiences like this. I am not sure I would have admitted what happened, preferring instead to blame myself for my own folly as being my own fault.
Why did you share this? What were you hoping to accomplish? I wonder if it were to expose yourself in a way to demonstrate your own fragility while on the journey of life, or if not to present yourself as a lesson for others, however it would be interpreted. I suppose there may be other ways or reasons, though acknowledging your own shame at assuming something and in the process offering an act of kindness and compassion, muddled through with feelings of spite and self-righteousnes, that left you humbled, shaking your head, and quite possibly disoriented, can be many lessons for many people. Who was the winner or loser? Was there a winner or loser? If not, does it really matter?
Hmm, showing disorientation and asking others for their thoughts and insights is quite an achievement, and while I am not yet clear as to where your own learning and debriefing and reflection and procesessing may lead, I can only hope it does not harden you into somebody who does not want to help until you are sure the other (person?) needs it. What a tragic result of this experience if you lose some of the magic that keeps bringing us back to comment so.
Don’t be so hard on yourself as you were in the closing paragraph. Those maxims can be as rigid as the assumptions that led to all this in the first place.
Thank you for your comment, Jeffery. I appreciate that you’ve taken such time to examine the post, the comments, and the subtle motivations that may have inspired me to write it.
I’m not sure I can easily answer your questions. My writing is somewhat of a confession, but not in the Catholic sense. I confess the truth about my experience, as best I can, in order to fully connect to the meat of my life, and to those who have decided to join me in this dialogue. My motivation may be more specific from post to post, but this is generally my approach to writing on this blog.
My account of this story is incomplete, admittedly. There are details about my neighbors (who I don’t know very well) that were not included in this narrative. For example, I didn’t speak about the way that the little boy and his mother came to greet us as we moved in, and that they gave us a basket of flowers. I also didn’t write about what happened on the next morning, when the man who I’d scorned came out to finish the work I’d begun, and how he admitted to feeling terrible that he didn’t shovel, himself. He gave us a bottle of wine to thank us. I didn’t write about that, but it was a part of the greater narrative.
This blog is autobiographical to a point, and then it becomes a forum to examine our values, our traditions, and our preconceptions. We discuss what it means to be human, Pagan, male, Christian, Other….as many embodiments as there are readers, as there are people. I use my life as a launching pad for a deeper discussion, because my life is all that I know intimately; everything else is guess work.
I appreciate your concern, but I don’t feel hardened by this experience. In fact, writing about it, and expressing the truth about my own shortcomings in this way has allowed me to be forgiving in ways that remaining quiet would not have allowed. I resist the rigidity by being vulnerable; I speak in order to keep my voice alive.
Thank you, again, for your comment. I hope you become a regular around here.
I love that statement: “I resist rigidity by being vulnerable; I speak in order to keep my voice alive.”
Can you see any other lessons in this experience?
Yes, a deep if decidedly un-glamorous one. Some days goddess calls us to serve her, or to learn from her, as a high-functioning Mexican!
I appreciate you taking the time to comment, Kenneth, but I’m not sure I understand exactly what you mean.
Just my smart-assed cover for a deeper point. It really just means that the more I go down the pagan and magickal paths, the more convinced I become that there are no accidents. Sometimes we’re called to service or to learn a lesson that is important to us, but not at all satisfying in the way we’d hoped or expected.
Remember the saying “no good deed goes unpunished”? Maybe this encounter was about helping you realize and come to grips with that. Maybe it was her opportunity – not taken – to be shamed into better behavior. Maybe the lesson for you was that honorable action is its own reward. You stepped into the role of the “high functioning Mexican” with good intent.
The fact this person misused that hospitality and took it for granted is infuriating to be sure, but it in no way detracts from the decency of the act. Once you’ve done your bit, the rest as far as karma or the Threefold Law or whatever you call it, is on them. No one gets away with anything ultimately.
Consider for a moment the plight of the real “high functioning Mexicans” this woman disparages. These are folks who do the dangerous and unpleasant labor for 70 hours a week and rotten pay. The fact that our society doesn’t recognize their dignity doesn’t mean they don’t have it. We can choose not to reward their honest hard work, and that has consequences for the Mexicans in question, but at the end of the day, who’s getting over on who? We think we’re clever for taking advantage of the Mexican, but in the process, we’ve created ourselves a society which devalues real work and glorifies corporate grifting, basically. The Mexican has little money, but lots of dignity. We now have neither.
Great post, and a great reminder that
one decision, reaction or judgement can be the catalyst for a long
series of events, that can sometimes leave a sour taste in our
After reading it, I put myself back in
at the root of the story where the events unfolded, and something
didn’t sit right with me.
“Oh, he’s inside. Works from
home. Don’t have to leave for work when you work on a laptop.”
What a jerk, I thought, sitting
inside at his computer while his wife is trying to clear off a
sky-load of snow while simultaneously calming an irritated child.
I tried to put myself in the shoes of
the non-present player in this tale, the husband.
Why was it easy to make the judgement
call on the husband?
These questions came to mind:
Was the husband choosing not to shovel
the snow because he is lazy? and instead he *chose* to sit at his
laptop and work?
Was he choosing to let his wife
struggle with the kid because he is neglectful, and so instead he
*chose* to be in a skype call with a client, or his boss?
Why does he have to sit at that laptop
and work from home? Is he bringing in the only income?
Why is it assumed that somebody that
“works from home” is free to shovel snow and mind kids?
Instead of being chained to a job, in his own home, would he prefer to be out making snow angels with his 3 year old? – Would the accusation of neglect of a child he dedicates every spare minute to, 5pm – bedtime, watching cartoons playing with toys, move his tired and overworked eyes to tears?
My thinking is, whether working at the
office or at home, people are absent. Maybe not physically within a few
feet of the driveway, but they are absent from the things that can not be done if they were to be working in an office in the city.
They are at home, but there are still
pressures and stresses to contend with, and deadlines to meet. On
the other side of that laptop could be what decides whether there is
food put on the table.
I also thought – could his wife’s flippant comments
toward her husband be based on a secret smiley resentment – This is
someone who has to shovel snow while her husband gets to be all “cosy”
inside, after all!
aye teo , i understand what your saying , not a good idea to judge others w/o knowing the whole story .The same thing could be said of me , those that donot know me and my situation . I can’t shovel snow any longer myself , am able otherwise . 9 months ago i had a heart attack , i was told by my cardiologist under no condition am i too shovel deep heavy snow , ever . Seems alot of older folks die shoveling snow , from overexcersion . Gods it sounds strange calling myself old . I even belong to AARP. Kilm