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Discrimination: Then and Now, Our Image in Today’s Society

By Sirena Van Schaik

In today’s modern world we preach about equality and the freedom to express ourselves in our own unique way. It is rather depressing however, that the definition, in society’s view, of “own unique way” is individualism within conformity. It is sad that in our diverse and tolerant culture, we are intolerant still of any deviation of the norm. It is horrible that people who pride themselves on being intelligent modern individuals still stereotype and discriminate against people because of their race, colour, creed, appearance and views. Mainstream consumerism has changed one discrimination for another.

In my short lifespan of 28 years, I have experienced, both directly and indirectly, many cases of stereotyping and discrimination. Several experiences have been in the last few months and it has given me some time to pause and think about how people have reacted to me and others throughout my life.

My earliest recollection of discrimination comes from my childhood in British Columbia during the 1980’s. Times were different and although I have been told that society has grown up since then it has become painfully obvious that our views are very much the same as they were then.

I grew up in a large lower middleclass home. My mother was a full time waitress and my father was a construction worker. For the most part our friendships stayed in our own respective income level. Our friends were lower middle class; their friends were lower middle class and so on. I had a few friends whose parents were both lower and higher on the income ruler and I suffered many comments from my parents who didn’t want me playing with the “poorer, less respectable” children. I also witnessed several of my “richer” friends get called away from playing with me. Finally after several years of listening to my parents fears over my being exposed to such “degenerates” that I found myself conforming to what they viewed as safe choices.

As a teenager, I rebelled against this way of thinking and I found myself seeking out the downtrodden. I wanted to prove that I could be an open caring person regardless of their financial level. I realized several years later that I had found a whole new way of discriminating against people. I just thought my way was the righteous way.

As a preschool teacher now, I see many of the same financial discriminations that I had witnessed as a child. The children thankfully are not yet aware of this discrimination but the parents are modelling it at an alarming rate. Parents will gather to talk about the class and other parents and children in the centre. These are done in groups of financial levels and sometimes race. Children from lower income families are rarely invited to birthday parties of the higher income families. Also I have witnessed the reverse effect by the lower income families. We still stay in our own secure lines of class only venturing out if it is absolutely necessary.

While I was growing up I had the unique experience of growing up in a special needs household. My brother was in a wheelchair and suffered from brain damage due to a delivery complication. I lost many friendships over my brother’s physical inabilities. Many children would laugh at our family; I would often be asked if his disorder was “catchy”. Respectable parents would ignore their children’s impolite behaviour, never bother to apologize and when they thought you weren’t listening, they would bow their heads together and whisper, “Oh that poor family, barely any money and they have to take care of a retarded son.” The stereotype was a hard one to lose, though our brother had special needs he was far from retarded and was a unique person who accomplished amazing feats, like learning how to dress himself, something that we take for granted.

My mother was another stereotype. She was thought of as the typical large breasted, blonde waitress. Men would flirt with her and at the end of the meal they would throw her a .30 cent tip and then play a nudge, nudge, wink, wink game as they headed for the door. They would often make sexual innuendos and consider her fair game. That after spending a half hour waiting on them she would suddenly become so grateful for that thirty-cent tip that she would meet them out in the back alley and do unmentionable acts to them.

Woman would react in the opposite way to her and treat her like the town tramp. Some down on her luck waitress that was just waiting to snag her claws into one of the eligible or not so eligible men that frequented her restaurant. Not once did it occur to them that this was a woman who worked twelve hours a day to take home a minuscule amount of money so that her five children could have a roof over their head, that even if she had plans to snag a husband, she wouldn’t have the energy to do anything with him or even to file the divorce just to get remarried.

Even today as I sit in a restaurant I watch people treat their waitress or waiter like they are subhuman whose only job on earth is to wait for them. I have seen people make their server cry when they messed up an order and I have watched a server bend over backwards to make a table happy only to be cheated on the tip. I urge people to step back and be grateful for that human being who is bringing you a nice meal. Sure it’s their job but their pay is horrible and the gratitude is even worse.

As a young adult I suffered many stereotypes of my own. I grew up to have the same body type as my mother. During the time that I started looking for my employment I was a slim, large breasted blonde. I had several interviews that were laughable to say the least and I could tell if I had a job by the sex of my interviewer. I was treated like a dumb blonde even though I graduated top of my class as both an award winner and honour student when I earned my college diploma.

My first official job was as a waitress. It was easy to start with something that I knew and I knew waitressing. I walked into the family restaurant that was advertising in the paper, walked up to the cash register and was greeted by a middle-aged waitress. She looked me over and answered my inquiry of speaking to the manager with a “He’s not here and we’re not hiring.” As I turned to go a sixty-year-old man came to the counter and called me over. He told me he was the owner and asked if I was looking for a job. I told him I was and gave him my resume. Thanking him for his time I left without discussing anything else other than “I’ll keep the resume on file.” Two days later I was called and asked if I could come the next day for training and to find out my hours.

There was no interview, my resume was extremely limited in way of experience and the man constantly watched me like I was some prime rib that he was selling. He would often ask me inappropriate questions about my home life and if my boyfriend was supporting me properly or if I was going to be leaving him soon. Unfortunately I needed the job so I just worked my hours, took the looks, the accidental gropes and innuendos from customers and continued to pretend to be the dumb blonde that I wasn’t.

Years later, after the birth of my first child, I decided to stay at home with him for the first two years. I found those years to be a very frustrating time whenever I had to deal with fellow adults. I had suddenly become the uninformed housewife. My only intellectual ability had to do with the best way to juggle a small baby and laundry at the same time.

My interests had not changed, my views and beliefs, my love of debate were still well intact but suddenly people treated me like I was merely an extension of my child and my husband. I felt like I had lost my worth and society was constantly broadcasting that a person’s worth was in his or her job. Unfortunately people I met and people I already knew shared this view and I would receive comments about staying at home to be with my son.

Somehow being thought of as a simple housewife bothered me more than the people who thought of me as a dumb blonde. I felt my worth disappear although I feel that raising your children and being there for them is the most important things a person could do. I applaud all the women and men who stay at home with their children and I recommend that others do as well.

The years have gone by and I have shrugged and sighed whenever I was aware of discrimination. I have ranted and raged, I have tried to teach by example, although I will be the first to admit that I have sometimes failed, I have even turned the other way. I had thought that I could easily ignore a discriminatory slight against me, I have lived through it before and I would live through it again. Unfortunately, I failed miserably when I was confronted with the newest attack on my person.

I have recently coloured my hair with purple highlights. It is an impulse action I make whenever I feel the need for the change. Upon changing my hair colour, I started to notice people treating me poorly. They would look at me and react in a very negative way.

One day while taking an elevator with my two children, a woman turned to my son and asked,” Why aren’t you in school today? It is a school day.” She turned to me and gave me a disapproving glare. I found myself explaining to a complete stranger how my son is only three and he doesn’t start JK until the fall. I was appalled and the woman looked a little sheepish but did not apologize for her attack.

A few days later, after running my groceries through a self serve check out, I was stopped by the attendant yelling, “Mam, mam, could you stop for a minute?” I looked at her and she started printing off a receipt from her computer. When the receipt was printed she stated that I didn’t scan some items through. She made me wait while she looked through my bags. When she saw that all the items were paid for she didn’t apologize for the accusation. I was shocked. I have shopped at that store for a year, always using the self-check and I have never been accused of stealing items. My hair is purple for less than a week and suddenly I am an unfit parent who spends her spare time shoplifting items from the grocery store.

My parenting skills and moral standards did not diminish because I chose a hair colour that is not the norm. I didn’t become a criminal as soon as the dye hit my scalp. It was a choice I made in a society that waves the flag of individuality and freedom of expression.

Sadly though my freedom of expression became a way for people to judge me inappropriately. As inappropriately as I have been treated most of my life. As inappropriately as I see people treat everyone around them.

It is time for us to truly review ourselves as a nation. We should start to accept, truly accept, that people are different. That it in no way diminishes the person they are. It’s time to look at ourselves and realize when we are discriminating and stereotyping a person, and to stop when we are.

We need to teach our children that it’s okay to be seen in clothes that aren’t top of the line, and it’s okay to be seen in clothes that are. That it’s okay and encouraged to treat everyone as equals and that no matter a person’s race, colour, creed, appearance or views, in the end they are simply a human being who deserves respect: we all deserve respect.

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