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Off-Color Commentary

Last week I was in my vet’s lobby with one of my dogs, waiting to check out, when I overhead a conversation behind me. “Of course you don’t like it here, but stop your complaining! We need to stay put for now.” An older woman, maybe in her mid-70s, was talking to her cat, which was meowing loudly from inside its plastic carrier. Hanging from the side of the carrier was an IV bag, and its tube snaked through a side vent into the carrier—and, presumably, the cat.

Sprinkles, it turns out, was a well-fed orange tabby who had lived almost all of her 18 years indoors. She’d been healthy her whole life but a few weeks ago started with a cough that sounded like a bark. Of course, I only knew this because the woman shared it freely with the handful of people—including me—in the waiting room. At that moment, from within the depths of its cage, as if for dramatic emphasis, the creature emitted a sharp cough, which sounded ironically like a bark, given that it came from a cat. At that, the dog sitting at my feet snapped to attention and gave a short bark of his own, as if to remind all of us what a bark from an actual dog sounds like.

The woman prattled on, to no one in particular but at the same time to everyone. She talked more about the cat’s bark, about other pets in the waiting room, about the arrival at last of the spring sunshine. If you caught her eye, she seemed to address you directly; but if you didn’t answer, she looked elsewhere for a more sympathetic ear.

As a rule, I tend to avoid drive-by conversations—I find the public nature of them embarrassing. There is nothing more excruciating for me than small talk in, say, a grocery produce aisle—and this was no exception, particularly as she asked pointed questions (“What he in for? Is he sick, too?”), which I found irritating.

So the woman was left to ply others. Mostly, she talked to the cat. I turned away and tried to ignore her.

Until I couldn’t. The door opened and a man with another cat in a carrier entered. He set down the carrier with its door facing the woman, and she peered inside: “Oh another little one!” the woman gushed over the small body pressed again the back of the cage. “And he’s so black! What’s his name… Shadow? Uncle Tom? Spooky? Sambo?” she guessed.

I whipped around, nearly floored. The black cat’s owner looked at the woman briefly, then moved to take a seat at the opposite end of the room. She didn’t wait for an answer, and he didn’t provide one; she began yawping about something else. I wasn’t really sure he had heard her.

Then again, I wasn’t really sure I had heard her, either. In those few moments after the comment, I was too stunned to know quite how to react, other than with disbelief: Did she really just say that? Would she actually have called out a few racial slurs as appropriate names for a black cat?

What really struck me was the thoughtlessness of the comment, the utter lack of intent. In a way, her oblivion suggested a lack of awareness that seemed more unsettling than if she had, for example, attempted an off joke. She lacked empathy, but more than that, she was completely insensate. She was there—breathing, talking, and in full flesh and blood—but she was nonetheless unconscious. And it was disturbing.

There was something completely absurd about the situation—and the woman herself: She treated an ill cat with enough regard to rehydrate it with an IV drip, but did not extend as much sensitivity to actual, you know, people.

Later, I wondered whether what I had witnessed was less one woman’s prejudgments than a glimpse into how so many others like her might view the world—where, say, a black man running for the presidency is first and foremost judged by the color of his skin, and only then on merit, or where his female opponent is judged first as a woman.

It then occurred to me that perhaps we are, all of us, limited in our ability to judge because of our own inherent prejudices. After all, “to be ignorant of one’s ignorance is the malady of the ignorant,” wrote Amos Alcott.

Are we, like the woman in the vet’s office, hostage to our own limitations? And can we ever transcend them?

Only if we have the capacity to doubt ourselves, I think.

Photo credit: PicturesofCats

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37 Responses to Off-Color Commentary

  1. Cam Beck says:

    “Are we, like the woman in the vet’s office, hostage to our own limitations? And can we ever transcend them?”

    On an individual basis, it can be empirically demonstrated that the answer to both of your questions is “yes.”

    It remains to be seen, though, if we actually will.

    Before we can transcend our limitations, we have to be aware of them, and people tend to actively avoid that which calls into question the propriety of their own worldviews. I find that it often takes an outside Force to move them.

  2. Cam Beck says:

    “Are we, like the woman in the vet’s office, hostage to our own limitations? And can we ever transcend them?”

    On an individual basis, it can be empirically demonstrated that the answer to both of your questions is “yes.”

    It remains to be seen, though, if we actually will.

    Before we can transcend our limitations, we have to be aware of them, and people tend to actively avoid that which calls into question the propriety of their own worldviews. I find that it often takes an outside Force to move them.

  3. Ditto!
    Yes an outside force or polarizing scenario contrary to held qualitative descriptions, will move individuals to think a little more open-mindedly.
    But internal and shared beliefs within one’s circles can strongly influnce the evaluation of the experience – perhaps it was just an anomaly, perhaps not.

  4. Ditto!
    Yes an outside force or polarizing scenario contrary to held qualitative descriptions, will move individuals to think a little more open-mindedly.
    But internal and shared beliefs within one’s circles can strongly influnce the evaluation of the experience – perhaps it was just an anomaly, perhaps not.

  5. I’m afraid we’re all an amalgam of good intentions, blind spots, obliviousness, and outright meanness (at times). Hopefully, we can become increasingly self-aware and circumspect over time, but none of us will ever get our feet completely out of our mouths. Wouldn’t it be an absolute blast to be a politician, so that EVERY gaffe can be recorded and dissected??

  6. I’m afraid we’re all an amalgam of good intentions, blind spots, obliviousness, and outright meanness (at times). Hopefully, we can become increasingly self-aware and circumspect over time, but none of us will ever get our feet completely out of our mouths. Wouldn’t it be an absolute blast to be a politician, so that EVERY gaffe can be recorded and dissected??

  7. Tim Jackson says:

    Ooh… having grown up, born and raised in Alabama… what an experience.

    My experience is that many people go through life repeating what they’ve learned from others without ever knowing there is even a problem and not meaning any harm. Another great quote for you; ignorance is bliss.

    Cam was right with his comment; we can’t overcome our ignorance of we are unaware of it. An ignorant bigot (in the true meaning of the word ignorant) has no idea that they are acting in a way that is unacceptable.

    Given her age, though not in any way condoning her words, she may simply be a product of a time when social values were completely different without actually intending or implying anything wrong.

    But I could be wrong…

    (And I TOTALLY would’ve had you pegged as a talker in the vet’s office… who knew?)

  8. Tim Jackson says:

    Ooh… having grown up, born and raised in Alabama… what an experience.

    My experience is that many people go through life repeating what they’ve learned from others without ever knowing there is even a problem and not meaning any harm. Another great quote for you; ignorance is bliss.

    Cam was right with his comment; we can’t overcome our ignorance of we are unaware of it. An ignorant bigot (in the true meaning of the word ignorant) has no idea that they are acting in a way that is unacceptable.

    Given her age, though not in any way condoning her words, she may simply be a product of a time when social values were completely different without actually intending or implying anything wrong.

    But I could be wrong…

    (And I TOTALLY would’ve had you pegged as a talker in the vet’s office… who knew?)

  9. Ann Handley says:

    Thanks Cam, Mario, Steve and Tim. Certainly awareness is a huge step toward change. That’s what totally blew me away about the woman in the vet lobby: she was completely unconscious. In fact, I suspect that she doesn’t see herself or her comments as racist, and she’d be surprised to consider herself as such.

    Maybe, as Tim suggests, it’s a generational thing? Maybe a certain profile within that generation?

    I’m not sure. I will say this, though: When I told my kids this story, they had a completely unexpected reaction: My 16-year-old thought she must have been totally insane-crazy to be speaking like that, and my 11-year-old didn’t know what the words meant, which I guess is a good thing. By the time I was 11, growing up in my neighborhood, those words were already laden with meaning.

  10. Ann Handley says:

    Thanks Cam, Mario, Steve and Tim. Certainly awareness is a huge step toward change. That’s what totally blew me away about the woman in the vet lobby: she was completely unconscious. In fact, I suspect that she doesn’t see herself or her comments as racist, and she’d be surprised to consider herself as such.

    Maybe, as Tim suggests, it’s a generational thing? Maybe a certain profile within that generation?

    I’m not sure. I will say this, though: When I told my kids this story, they had a completely unexpected reaction: My 16-year-old thought she must have been totally insane-crazy to be speaking like that, and my 11-year-old didn’t know what the words meant, which I guess is a good thing. By the time I was 11, growing up in my neighborhood, those words were already laden with meaning.

  11. Paxton Guy says:

    I refer to this Seth Godin post, some of the best wisdom I’ve read lately:

    http://sethgodin.typepad.com/seths_blog/2008/01/bad-judgment.html

    It’s not a matter of judgment. We know better. We have full control of what we say and think (or so we believe). Many people–certainly some elderly people, whose minds are naturally in a state of decline–do not. That’s not an excuse, but it is an explanation.

  12. Paxton Guy says:

    I refer to this Seth Godin post, some of the best wisdom I’ve read lately:

    http://sethgodin.typepad.com/seths_blog/2008/01/bad-judgment.html

    It’s not a matter of judgment. We know better. We have full control of what we say and think (or so we believe). Many people–certainly some elderly people, whose minds are naturally in a state of decline–do not. That’s not an excuse, but it is an explanation.

  13. Mack Collier says:

    Ann this reminds me of a time when I was about 6 years old. I came home from school and told my mom a joke I had heard from another kid. The joke’s punchline involved a racial slur which I told her and then died laughing. My mom’s mouth hit the floor and then she asked me ‘Do you know what that word means?’ And I realized that I had no idea what the word meant, I just knew that the kid that told me the joke died laughing when he said it, so I assumed this was the proper reaction when the joke reached its end. But the look of stunned disappointment on my parents’ faces told me immediately that I had made a big mistake. Even if I didn’t know what that mistake was.

    Come to think of it, the kid that told me the joke probably didn’t know what it meant either. Maybe an older brother told him and he laughed along because he didn’t want to admit to his brother that he didn’t know what the word meant anymore than I did when he told the joke to me.

    Thankfully, I was set straight early on, looks like the woman in the vet’s office never was.

  14. Mack Collier says:

    Ann this reminds me of a time when I was about 6 years old. I came home from school and told my mom a joke I had heard from another kid. The joke’s punchline involved a racial slur which I told her and then died laughing. My mom’s mouth hit the floor and then she asked me ‘Do you know what that word means?’ And I realized that I had no idea what the word meant, I just knew that the kid that told me the joke died laughing when he said it, so I assumed this was the proper reaction when the joke reached its end. But the look of stunned disappointment on my parents’ faces told me immediately that I had made a big mistake. Even if I didn’t know what that mistake was.

    Come to think of it, the kid that told me the joke probably didn’t know what it meant either. Maybe an older brother told him and he laughed along because he didn’t want to admit to his brother that he didn’t know what the word meant anymore than I did when he told the joke to me.

    Thankfully, I was set straight early on, looks like the woman in the vet’s office never was.

  15. Mack Collier says:

    “It’s not a matter of judgment. We know better. We have full control of what we say and think (or so we believe). ”

    Not sure I follow you. I have no doubt that the woman in the vet’s office saw nothing wrong with saying those things. In fact she probably thought Ann and the other people were a bit weird for acting the way they likely did.

    I can’t see her behavior being something that suddenly started happening because of diminishing mental abilities. Maybe I am misreading what your point is?

  16. Mack Collier says:

    “It’s not a matter of judgment. We know better. We have full control of what we say and think (or so we believe). ”

    Not sure I follow you. I have no doubt that the woman in the vet’s office saw nothing wrong with saying those things. In fact she probably thought Ann and the other people were a bit weird for acting the way they likely did.

    I can’t see her behavior being something that suddenly started happening because of diminishing mental abilities. Maybe I am misreading what your point is?

  17. Ad Broad says:

    Excellent post, Ann. More than a post–an op ed-worthy piece on obliviousness alive and well in us all, to some degree. She might have recognized her cluenessness if someone had peeked in her cage and observed, “Such an old cat. What do you call him? Geezer? Methuselah?” Or maybe not.

  18. Ad Broad says:

    Excellent post, Ann. More than a post–an op ed-worthy piece on obliviousness alive and well in us all, to some degree. She might have recognized her cluenessness if someone had peeked in her cage and observed, “Such an old cat. What do you call him? Geezer? Methuselah?” Or maybe not.

  19. Ann Handley says:

    Ad Broad — Maybe not, but that’s laugh out loud funny….

    Paxton Guy & Mack — I kinda don’t think her age had anything to do with the comments. In other words, she likely always viewed the world in.. well, black and white. Definitely there’s a whole subset of her generation who’d agree with her.

  20. Ann Handley says:

    Ad Broad — Maybe not, but that’s laugh out loud funny….

    Paxton Guy & Mack — I kinda don’t think her age had anything to do with the comments. In other words, she likely always viewed the world in.. well, black and white. Definitely there’s a whole subset of her generation who’d agree with her.

  21. Liz says:

    I remember my grandmother (born in 1904) talking about the “coloreds” and how I used to bristle. When finally I garnered the strength to challenge her on it, she had absolutely no idea what I was talking about and dismissed me with an impatient flick of the hand.

    My mother, on the otherhand, is currently in her early 70s, the same age as your cat woman. While she is completely self absorbed , she is very “hip” and liberal politically and would never say anything like your cat woman.

    While age contributes to tunnel vision, it is by no means the only contributor – cluelessness is rampant across way too many boundaries!

    Thanks for the post!

  22. Liz says:

    I remember my grandmother (born in 1904) talking about the “coloreds” and how I used to bristle. When finally I garnered the strength to challenge her on it, she had absolutely no idea what I was talking about and dismissed me with an impatient flick of the hand.

    My mother, on the otherhand, is currently in her early 70s, the same age as your cat woman. While she is completely self absorbed , she is very “hip” and liberal politically and would never say anything like your cat woman.

    While age contributes to tunnel vision, it is by no means the only contributor – cluelessness is rampant across way too many boundaries!

    Thanks for the post!

  23. I lived in Mississippi for a few years, and found there were two times that people made racist remarks in my presence: they either leapt to the wildly erroneous assumption that I shared their viewpoint; or they were trying to wind up the Hollywood Liberal.

    People who are now in their 70s were in their 30s during the civil rights movement–they have no excuse for ignorance, let alone the malice behind the sentiment. Whatever she believes, she should know better than to say it out loud in public. And that’s where I don’t give anyone a free pass.

    When we make an honest mistake about someone–for instance, my utterly flawed belief that you must have been an outgoing child–making a factual adjustment requires nothing more than an, “Oh, really? Wow.” And I don’t think there’s any harm in that. The human experience, really.

    It’s all about intent.

  24. I lived in Mississippi for a few years, and found there were two times that people made racist remarks in my presence: they either leapt to the wildly erroneous assumption that I shared their viewpoint; or they were trying to wind up the Hollywood Liberal.

    People who are now in their 70s were in their 30s during the civil rights movement–they have no excuse for ignorance, let alone the malice behind the sentiment. Whatever she believes, she should know better than to say it out loud in public. And that’s where I don’t give anyone a free pass.

    When we make an honest mistake about someone–for instance, my utterly flawed belief that you must have been an outgoing child–making a factual adjustment requires nothing more than an, “Oh, really? Wow.” And I don’t think there’s any harm in that. The human experience, really.

    It’s all about intent.

  25. Jim Sutton says:

    I am reminded of that short story, “Everything That Rises Must Converge,” by Flannery O’Connor? It’s the same idea only the person who is the equivalent of the cat owner gets flattened in front of her son who has been embarrassed by her behavior. He is shocked and frightened when he realizes she is seriously hurt. I am not sure where I am going with this, maybe just the humanity of it all.

  26. Jim Sutton says:

    I am reminded of that short story, “Everything That Rises Must Converge,” by Flannery O’Connor? It’s the same idea only the person who is the equivalent of the cat owner gets flattened in front of her son who has been embarrassed by her behavior. He is shocked and frightened when he realizes she is seriously hurt. I am not sure where I am going with this, maybe just the humanity of it all.

  27. Sean Howard says:

    And he smells funny.

  28. Sean Howard says:

    And he smells funny.

  29. Interesting. She spoke out loud what many people still think, silently. May older people… and, I expect, some younger people.

    It’s sad. That’s what it is. I believe our children and grandchildren are rising above that. I believe we are making progress, yet, regardless, the racial slurs and gay bashing and misogny will prevail… in a small minority.

    At least, I’m hoping it is becoming a small minority. That’s what I SEE around me.

  30. Interesting. She spoke out loud what many people still think, silently. May older people… and, I expect, some younger people.

    It’s sad. That’s what it is. I believe our children and grandchildren are rising above that. I believe we are making progress, yet, regardless, the racial slurs and gay bashing and misogny will prevail… in a small minority.

    At least, I’m hoping it is becoming a small minority. That’s what I SEE around me.

  31. So, instead of patting ourselves on the back about how horrified we are at this behavior, what does one do about it?

    What does it mean that two black men will use “nigger” talking to one another? What does it mean when in a social situation someone is talking like that?

    How do you think we, as citizens, can correct this type of behavior? How do you fix it? Apparently what has been done so far isn’t very effective — ignorance is applauded in our society and education is looked down on.

    In a social situation like your example, you’re waiting for a meeting with a vet. Do you get up and leave? Do you slap her across the mouth? Do you tell her to shut up? Unplug the IV?

  32. So, instead of patting ourselves on the back about how horrified we are at this behavior, what does one do about it?

    What does it mean that two black men will use “nigger” talking to one another? What does it mean when in a social situation someone is talking like that?

    How do you think we, as citizens, can correct this type of behavior? How do you fix it? Apparently what has been done so far isn’t very effective — ignorance is applauded in our society and education is looked down on.

    In a social situation like your example, you’re waiting for a meeting with a vet. Do you get up and leave? Do you slap her across the mouth? Do you tell her to shut up? Unplug the IV?

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