Below the Waterline

Can you imagine smiling politely as someone insults you and the people you love most in the world?

I recently met a man who came to our home to repair an appliance. His work completed, we got to talking about ethnic food. He asked me: “What do you think my background is?”

I stared at him, his European ancestry evident in his face, skin colour, hair texture. But he wouldn’t have asked that question unless he had been born somewhere outside Europe, I reasoned.

“Maltese,” I said, picking the first place that came into my mind.

“No,” he replied.

I was still staring at his face.

“I give up,” I finally said.

“I’m Canadian Indian,” he said.

“Seriously?” I asked.  I know that indigenous people come in a variety of shapes and shades, but still….

“You must be mixed with a lot of European blood, then?”

“No, only a little,” he said. “My grandfather on my father’s side was half German.  I look  a lot like him. But all my brothers and siblings look completely indigenous, with darker skin and black hair.”

I smiled knowingly now. “My extended family is kinda like that,” I said. “Our family’s racial mix seems to disappear for a generation or two, then it pops up and a child will resemble an ancestor two or three generations back. Funny how that happens, eh?”

Blog Photo - Hollyhock Mutant

We chatted for a while longer. But after he left, one thing he said stayed on my mind. Because everyone he meets assumes he’s caucasian,  he sometimes hears people talk about indigenous people in disparaging terms.

“That’s my people they’re talking about,” he remarked, sad and matter-of-fact at the same time. “That’s me they’re talking about in that way.”

~~

Our conversation reminded me that when we meet someone, we never quite know who we’re talking to. Below the waterline, beneath the obvious, lie differences that we can’t see.

If you met some members of my own family, you wouldn’t know their racial mix either.

Blog Photo - Mama's Garden CU of CR

And if you met me, you wouldn’t immediately realize that as a consequence of my car accident, I struggle with a head injury, post-traumatic stress disorder, and the depression that accompanies those challenges.  Yes, mental disability.

I have Muslim friends who are rarely recognized as such because Muslims are seen as brown-skinned, and primarily from the Middle East or India/Pakistan.  I have Jewish friends who don’t fit someone else’s idea of what a Jew should look or behave like.

I have deeply religious friends who have heard others disparage their belief in God, and atheist friends who are disdained for not believing in God.

And until quite recently in Canada, it was often acceptable to talk about gays, lesbians and transgender persons in very negative terms. In some quarters, it still is.

These are just a few of the many invisible differences that exist among the people we know. Differences that are sometimes disparaged, even rejected.

~~

The talk with the appliance repairman left me thinking about the potent mix of emotions a person feels when they are accepted as “one of us”, knowing that if their true identity were known, they’d likely be rejected, as would the people they love.

What must it feel like to be allowed ‘a pass’ because of the way you look, but to hear people, over and over, deride a group to which you belong?

My visitor described his experiences without self-pity, without anger.

I didn’t ask him: are you glad at times that you don’t look Aboriginal? Doesn’t it gain you entry to places where your real identity would deny you access? But perhaps I didn’t ask because I already have a sense of such things — my own background being what it is.

And not for the first time, I wondered: is this the kind of adversity that is supposed to make a person stronger? Or does its effect simmer quietly out of sight, corroding one’s soul?

 

 

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91 Comments

Filed under A Good Home, Canadian life, Canadians, Family, Inclusion, Inspiration, Life Challenges, Life in canada, OpEd

91 responses to “Below the Waterline

  1. Liz

    What a fascinating and important post, Cynthia – thank you for sharing it with us. My sister and I are very interested in this kind of issue from the perspective of ‘invisible illness’. I am a chronic migraine sufferer and my nephew deals with the consequences of brain damage at birth. So many people cope with things which cannot immediately be identified on a first, or perhaps several, meetings. All the more reason to keep an open mind, remain non-judgemental and deal with everyone with as much love and compassion as possible 😀

  2. I just don’t know. We live in a pretty multi-racial society here in Gibraltar but there is inbred historical racism. Our neighbours and people we have, and do work, with are Jewish, Catholic, Muslim, Spanish, British, Gibraltarian, Eastern European, Indian, Russian, Italian, Portuguese etc etc.
    People with mental illness remain a forgotten group, still discriminated against. Years ago one didn’t like to mention cancer, now people can. I hope to see depression, anxiety and all aspects of mental illness free from stigma.

  3. This is an important topic Cynthia. Thanks for shining an insightful look at the ways we can learn to view each of with love and compassion. Maybe one day we will treat everyone as precious, appreciating both the diversity of outer expressions and the universal bonds that unite us.

  4. WOW, Cynthia!!! Very thought-provoking post! Food for thought! Thank you so much for pointing out things that some perhaps have not considered when it comes to our perceptions of other people.

  5. Thought provoking post, CR. It makes me realize (in a good way) just how much things have changed in that regard in my lifetime.
    I grew up in the Deep South and attended design school at a large state university (no one admitted to being gay) Years later it has all changed and everything is much more open. I got an email from an unfamiliar guy recently, a classmate had married his husband and changed his last name-it had never occurred to me that guys did that?!

    • Thank you for this. On a societal level, some things have changed for the better – by far. On the level of human to human, we might need a bit of work! How interesting that a man should wish to change his last name. That hadn’t occurred to me either. But when one thinks about it: why not? I just remembered a very modern couple where both hated their last names and when they got married, they chose another ancestral name.

      • I think you are right. As a whole we are better, a good thought. Weird things still happen human to human. Name change thing, never crossed my mind. My joke with my husband is I like the Star Trek future. I was surprised by a Jamaican Canadian!

  6. I think I like you, for WHO ~ you have become!

    • What a nice thing to say. But hey, Klaire: you should see me on my bad days….. (big smile) I wish you a good day. And — Aren’t I going to do a blog post about the rebuilding of your house after the fire? I still want to, but as you know, the last several months have been wonky. Okay: maybe I should say ‘the last decade’…

  7. This attitude is corroding the world and it breaks my heart. Why are people so frightened of ‘difference’?

  8. Margaret Mair

    How interesting that your repairman asked you to guess his background. Over time I have come to know others with similar mixes of – what to call it? Culture and place of birth? And I’m a pretty rich mix myself, part of a rainbow family, with a skin that changes colour with the sun. It makes a person very aware of preconceptions and prejudices of many kinds, in themselves and others, and of the line between who we are and who we are thought to be.
    Thank you for sharing your thoughts. And for including the invisible differences.

    • Thanks for this thoughtful response, Margaret. Although, being an ardent fan of your paintings and poetry, I should expect no less. I am aware of my own prejudices, but once in a while, I have to catch myself too.

  9. Inese Poga Art plus Life

    We always get to know the worst and the best things about some race and nation. It’s usually the person, however, who we are nice to or not that much. I personally believe every nation has some great, kind and in all regards excellent people and every nation has evil, bad and rude people. We cannot allow that somebody else’s experience or assumptions build our attitude. I also sometimes think we are a lot about classification, categorization and labeling. I would love this is not the most important thing about a person: what nation or race he or she belongs to. Some people are also very sensitive when they hear what is said about their ethnic group or race. I am Latvian, and I have never heard anybody discussing Latvians that much. If they would, I have what to answer. In fact, I never relate racial discussions as if they were about me or my husband who is native Canadian, my friends, etc. I think both things are wrong: to be overly sensitive and to judge by the group a person belongs to.

    • What a thoughtful reflective reply, Inese. Thanks for thinking this through and responding. I wonder: what would you say if someone, not knowing you were Latvian, dismissed Latvians in general as being lazy, shiftless alcoholics who only want to live on government handouts? I ask this genuinely. Would you have an immediate answer? I almost never have the right words to respond in that moment. I wish I did.

      Hope your last art workshop went well. They say art is good for healing the brain, and every so often I think I must come and meet you.

  10. Thanks for this thought provoking post Cynthia. If we imagine people as icebergs, we come to realize that most of who we are is below the surface. It is beneath the waterline where we find the more important attritubes…values, beliefs, concept of love, etc.

    • Thanks for this contribution, Hamlin. Can you share a bit more about this?

      • If we imagine people are like icebergs, it’s easy to see how we can miss (or not see) the most important aspects of them. The challenge is to first recognize that “what we see” is not necessarily what “we get” when encountering or interacting with others. We all respond differently to cultural differences based on our exposure to those differences. Some of us may simply not realize that how people behave are based on culture and just respond to the more visible signs of culture — how people dress, food, etc; others may see the differences but judge them negatively in terms of “us” vs. “them”; others may look for commonalities rather than acknowledging the differences – saying, “we are all human beings” – but that ignores the unique characteristics of people (the things below the waterline). Other people recognize the importance of cultural differences and realize that their worldview is no more important than someone else’s. Still, there are others who are able to see the differences and are able to change their behaviour and perspectives appropriately in order to to bridge those differences for mutual benefit.
        We are all capable of learning how to better navigate cultural differences but it is something we must be deliberate about. After all, we are all indeed a work in progress. So next time you meet a person for the first time, realize that there is more to them than meets the eye. If you are curious about who they are, ask. It may surprise you how open many people are about sharing themselves and their lived experiences.

      • Thank you very much, Hamlin.

  11. The old saying “Never judge a book by its cover” comes to mind, and you have given perfect examples of why we shouldn’t.
    I think most people who put down others do so because it makes them feel better or more important than the person they’re putting down, but I’ve never been able to figure out why.

    • Yup, I suspect you are right, Allen. Or they grow up hearing others described in this way and don’t examine whether it’s true. Or they have one or two contacts with people from that group and turn it into a generalization. I suspect that it’s often otherwise ‘good people’ who fall into these traps and don’t even know we are there.

  12. A thought-provoking post Cynthia, it’s always interesting when people assume that you are just like them when actually there is an important difference – it can then be difficult to be who you really are.

    • So true. I’ve been guilty of this in the past myself. Took me years to realize the better approach was to ask, not assume. Because, later, when you find out how wrong you were …. yikes.

  13. My daughter is half Pakistani but you would think she was Caucasian to look at. Once, when fortunately she was only about 3, an electrician who had come to mend a light switch gave me a recommendation for another company that could repair my cooker…. I wonder if he would have insisted that one of the good things about them was that they weren’t Asian, had she looked more like her father?

    Very sad that people hold such views – and assume that others will agree!

  14. Below the waterline and hopefully not drowning! As you know my children have a rich cultural and racial heritage. My daughter said it didn’t occur to her that she could be discriminated against until quite recently when she happened upon certain sites on the internet. She was nonplussed by the difficulties some people wrote about. However, she is also nonplussed (and so am I) by the absolute discrimination handed out to those, like herself, with a mental health disability. Even those who should be most compassionate, such as the medical profession, often fall short eg the psychiatrist who called my daughter a lizard during an emergency hospital admission….(yep, go figure!). Back to racial and/or ethnic heritage; my children were often asked where they were from. In Egypt it would be, “Are you Egyptian?” In Fiji, it was, are you Fijian? In the US, it was Latino, and here it is Maori or Pacific Islander. Which makes me think they are universal children, which is how we all should me. Remember Desiderata?

    • I do remember the Desiderata, though I haven’t heard it for a while – maybe one of those things we lump in with our flower-child era and really should never have forgotten. Your kids are children of the universe indeed, as are we all.

      I also do know about the stigma against mental illness/disability. I was tough on the doctors and therapists because I never wanted them to mention any of those terms to me: head injury, PTSD, depression. It really made me feel ashamed, as if I should have been stronger than this, and had let down the side, somehow. So though I said I understood and empathized with others, that means that I really hadn’t.

  15. Cynthia, I’ll never forget hearing your interview with Sheila Rogers on CBC radio. Your courage to speak openly about your life inspired me to not only admire you, but to be braver about sharing my own story. You’re one special lady at, above, and beneath the waterline.
    Blessings ~ Wendy

  16. This is such an important subject. If humanity as a whole could just make the effort to be more accepting of ‘difference’ what a wonderful place earth would be. If we all ‘loved one another’ this would be heaven on earth. There have been improvements here and there but I don’t know that we’ll ever get it right. As you know, both my daughters have mental health problems and they have been victims of discrimination all their lives. I worked as a waitress for a time in a hotel in Austria and had a small taste of being treated differently. I was 18 and it shocked me – I was very naive! However, I have never had to put up with discrimination day in, day out as so many others do. I think you would have to be a very strong person to start with, for that kind of treatment to make you stronger.

    • Hi Clare: Your answer shows much contemplation and enlightenment, as always.
      I think we almost all have to keep making that effort, because in many parts of the world, human beings stayed alive ‘way back when’ by staying with their own small group or tribe, and mistrusting others. I suspect it’s still deeply ingrained.

      I think this is a big part of the challenge of being human and living up to our ‘better angels’ on a daily basis. Stereotypes and easy answers are much less taxing, and such quicker options, aren’t they?

  17. I wish the world could understand that we are all just human beings. The differences we perceive and make so much of are so minute. How can the colour of someone’s skin, eyes, hair, or their sexual or religious choices make any difference to their worth?

    • Great question, Marie. But so much of what we are raised with – books, religion, family worldview either introduces or reinforces within us a rejection of people who are very different – maybe we will live up to our best potential when we are truly able to understand your first sentence.

  18. Profound, sensitive, thoughts, Cynthia

    • Thanks, Derrick. This post took me by surprise, and the responses to it too. Normally, it’s the kind of thing I’d simply write in my journal, but it poured out of me in one sitting at my computer.

  19. Judgements, lack of acceptance, prejudice, thoughtless and often cruel opinions seem to stem from fear and a misguided sense that putting others down make our own choices correct. I think a lot of folk must be utterly beaten down, mentally and physically. Even the very strongest of people must be adversely affected by mans lack of humanity.

    • I think they must be.
      I remember how it felt when as a child, I was always the tiny one with the long mane of bushy red-coppery-brown hair in a place where everyone else had dark hair. Nicknames? I had a few.

      It made me more thoughtful of other people’s differences. But as I grew up, I at times surprised myself when I realized that I had developed a few stereotypes of my own. In every decade of my life I’ve had to check myself at one point or another.

  20. Thanks for bringing this up. One of the best TV programs is Finding Your Roots, researched, directed and produced by Dr. Henry Louis Gates, Jr. He researches the DNA of four people a show and goes into the history of how they inherited their genes. In the process, stereotypes disappear. Brilliant program. Tuesday nights, PBS!

  21. I try to remind myself “All things are connected to all things”. Discrimination comes in many forms and disguises, whether given or received, and knows no bounds.

  22. Your post clearly touched a nerve and you make such good points! We have a long way to go. Here in the US, we’re in the middle of a really nutty presidential campaign and it even seems a little risky to mention your political affiliation, for fear of being judged!

  23. Great post. This is so, so true. It’s something that hit me a while back, myself, but in a different way.

    Once upon a time, I used to have a reasonably high powered job. I’m a sat-down, stand-up comedienne so I suspect my personality didn’t fit the stereotype of a corporate high flyer. When people asked me what I did, and I told them, I would always notice a certain amount of consternation on their part that someone who is socially a bit lively the way I am could hold down a serious job for grown ups.

    When stopped work and especially after I became a Mum people asked me what I did and sometimes I could see them dismissing me, either because they thought I must lead a very boring life, or because they thought I must be boring or just because they had jobs and a different kind of life and didn’t know what to say next. I was still exactly the same person inside but the way other people reacted to me had totally changed with the answer to that one question, ‘what do you do?’ It made me realise exactly this, that you never know who you are talking to who they are, where they’re from or what amazing things they have been.

    We are all equal, different, but equal.

    Cheers

    MTM

    • What an interesting thing you’ve shared with us, MT. I’m sorry to hear. At the same time, I can relate to it, now that my ‘status’ has changed so much and people sometimes treat me like a nonentity.

      It’s amazing how people treat each other based on whether we think they are important or not. We make these quick decisions based on very little that’s real. It really makes the case for knowing oneself and not being dejected by the behaviour of others. (Tough though that is to do.) I think of writers like Edith Wharton, Maya Angelou and Anne Morrow as I write this.

  24. A great post Cynthia. Solzhenitsyn said: ‘ Intolerance is the first sign of an inadequate education’. People with prejudices are usually ill- educated . Psychologists call being able to put yourself into sombeody elses’ shoes and empathise with them: ‘ theory of mind’. But theory of mind doesn’ t come naturally. It has to be taught to people when they are children, or they never get it. If you don’ t have theory of mind, you are never going to be able to respect other people and recognise your common humanity.

  25. Sometimes, words are just not enough. After hearing you speak of the after effects of your accident, I feel that I want to be able to do more- to cook you a meal, to pick flowers and do some arranging together. To be a better friend, the kind who pops round on a difficult day.
    And I was so moved by this post and all the comments. As a child in the late 50’s I was stigmatised because my parents divorced and because I had no Father afterwards. At school, teachers would actually refer to the children of divorced parents as difficult. I too wanted to say that they were talking about me. So, I remained always on the outside of things, always different.
    I am so glad that the man who mended your appliance felt that he could talk to you. He must have sensed that you would understand and perhaps each time this happens then a little more healing will take place for him. I do hope so.
    Karen
    P.S
    I wrote this earlier and it all disappeared 😦 So I hope this reaches you….and that it does not arrive twice!

    • Ah, Karen. What a kind thought. Yes, I would love picking and arranging flowers with you, and maybe serve as your sous-chef in making a meal. I am moved by the responses to this post, including, now, yours. Thank you for sharing it, Karen.
      We are vulnerable as adults, but so much more so when we are children, and those feelings of being stigmatised can remain with us for a lifetime. Good teachers and other adults who recognize that are important. You mention feeling on the outside of things, always different, and I’m surprised at how many people say that, and are often able to trace it back to childhood.

  26. I never thought much about this until I had children who were part Hispanic. And then, you look at the subtle prejudices in the world–and the not so subtle–in a completely different light.

  27. As usual: just the right mixture of thought-provoking and humanity. Thanks for providing us with more ideas upon which to reflect. 🙂

  28. Very good and important post. The divisions between races, ethnicities, even religions, are much less distinct in reality than many of us imagine.

  29. You are such a wise woman Cynthia:-) I wish you lived in America for I would vote for you to be our president!!!!!

    • Thanks for making me smile, Robbie. Now tell me, girlfriend: who is wiser than Robbie herself? Think about all you have done and are doing despite the struggles you’ve had. You exude power, wisdom and concern for fellow human beings. Keep up the good work, Robbie! Proud to know you.

      • I am so touched:-) + coming from you Cynthia-well, it made me stand a bit taller as I head out the door! thank you:-) You are such a blessing to us all!!!!( ) hugs to you girlfriend:-)

  30. Thank you for this post! Pity it hurts when someone speaks bad way about your race or nationality. Don’t know why, but it hurts, even if for a short moment. Must be something in our genes 🙂 I have been raised a cosmopolitan, it is why I feel bad when someone speaks disrespectfully of any nation or race. You have no idea how often I defend the Americans, because it seems that many people don’t like them 🙂 Whoever is criticized, I always find something to say in their defense, because there is no such thing as a bad nation or race. People can be very different, but it is silly to generalize.
    I was very surprised reading about sexual minorities. My grandmother’s cousin was a gay and lived with a partner, and no one cared much. People didn’t like him because of his mean character, but respected for his professionalism. Never heard his sexual life discussed in my family. I met a transgender person first time in my life when I was 21. People loved her, and no one would ever say any disrespectful thing to her. The change happened to her after she graduated. It was a small village, and everyone showed their support. People are much more than their disabilities, much more than their sexual preferences, and much more than their skin color or facial features. I wish they would see it in others too:)
    Best wishes!

  31. The title is not quite what I expected but it is perfect for the post. We just never can know what a person is going through by looking at them. And we judge too quickly by appearance. You have made a strong statement in a very gentle way with your example of the repairman. It is a reminder to refrain from disparaging remarks about a group. Oh, and I like your new photo! I am a little behind on blog reading so I had not seen it. All the best to you as you continue to share and show courage.

  32. Very thoughtful post, Cynthia, and I’m sure it must be very difficult for lots of people having to deal with prejudices all their lives. I personally don’t care one bit as for me it’s the personality that counts. I’m very lucky too to be able to live in a very international region as I find this hugely enriching.

    • So true: It does broaden our perspective to live among people who are different than ourselves. Forces us to go beyond the exterior — unless, of course, we shut ourselves off entirely.

  33. You are right, this is so important. People today often mutter about the restrictions of ‘political correctness’, but actually this mostly means treat others individuals as you would like to be treated yourself, and don’t make, or voice, assumptions about groups of people.

  34. As one person commented above – if we simply treated others as we wished to be treated, it would all be so much easier – and happier – wouldn’t it? Very nice post, Cynthia. (Sometimes my journal posts take a leap to the computer, too. 🙂 )

  35. Another term might be “watermarking/using a watermark” – something like that. 🙂

  36. Sorry the above comment appeared twice – WordPress was doing something odd and it appeared in 2 places. Jeanne

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