First of all, I’m not going to claim that what I have experienced is anything like what many minorities have experienced when it comes to discrimination. What I have experienced is the stuff of good party stories and long running jokes, not the harsh life of others who have been actually discriminated against. This is merely a post to shed a little bit of perspective and thought for those people who’s automatic response to stories of discrimination is to want to blame the victim for “acting wrong”. I’m related to many like this, unfortunately. My hope is to explain this in such a way that folks like them may think a moment about my experiences, ones that they’ve heard about enough times and laughed with me, and just maybe become a little more understanding when someone stands up and says that they were prejudged about something unfairly.
Prejudice is when someone looks at someone they don’t know and makes a decision about who that person is. The prejudice I get all the time is that I’m a child, even though I’m just over a month away from my 28th birthday.
You see, I’m short. 4 ft 10 and a half inches, as I insist on describing myself. I love that my husband also insists on including my half inch when he talks about my height. It always serves to get that first laugh out of a stranger and break the ice. “Isn’t it cute how much she cares about that half inch?” they seem to think.
I’m not small though. I’m built like a “brick shit house” as my husband says, looking more like an American female gymnast than one of the wispy Chinese gymnasts from this past summer’s Olympics. Before our wedding I’d heard about how short his mom had been when she was married and was excited to wear her wedding dress (she was killed in a car accident in 1996). But, apparently she was not only short, she was TINY. I couldn’t get my arms through the sleeves, let alone zip the poor thing. Due to time constraints, I had to purchase my own dress rather than create something new from hers.
So, this seems to lead to conflicting assumptions from people who look at me: I’m short, so I must be young, but I’m curvy, so I must be post-puberty. After that, it’s a conundrum for them. They make an assumption, when I brag about my half inch, that they should err on the side of young, because any “normal” woman would round up her height, rather than break the awkwardness of meeting a new person with a joke about her height. Most other women lie about their age and weight, because it’s socially unacceptable to be proud of our bodies. Obviously, I’m not normal.
At this point, I imagine most people are blaming me for being prejudged wrongly. I’m presenting myself as younger with my choice of words, so obviously I must want people to assume I’m a child. Have I done this? Yes, and to great avail.
You see, before we were married, my husband and I went to a hospital to visit his aunt. Halfway there, out of a 45 minute drive, I remembered that this hospital is operated by a company that requires an ID for visitors and I’d left my wallet at home because I rarely carried it back then. Instead of telling him of this problem, I decided to just see how far I could push the idea that I’m a kid. I wasn’t out to do any harm, I just wanted to get past the security guard rather than have to wait in the lobby, though if I wasn’t allowed in, I was fine with whatever was expected of me. It was my fault, you know. I had a book with me because even as I would leave the house without my wallet, I rarely leave the house without a book. In case you don’t know already, my husband is 19 years older than me, twice my weight and about a foot and a half taller than me. Obviously most people assume he’s my father. So, when we got to the hospital, I got into character. Instead of walking faster to keep up with him, I let myself fall slightly behind, appearing to be “tagging along”. I slouched just enough to look less confident of myself. I held my book with both of my hands, crossed around my body to emphasize the lack of confidence. I let myself be sleepy because it was like 8 pm and even though I’m nearly 28, by most nights I’m half asleep by 9:30 anyway. I didn’t speak, letting my husband take the lead. The expression on my face was of youthful innocence, looking around the lobby as though curious about it.
My plan worked as intended. The guard checked my husband in and handed him two ID stickers: one with his name and picture, the other with “child of” his name and picture (for me). I’m pretty sure it said “please return to” as well. At this point my husband started to laugh and said “that’s my girlfriend”. The guard gave that half laugh of “you’re pulling my leg” and said “Yeah, right. If you want to be arrested.” My husband said, “No, seriously. She earned that sweatshirt she’s wearing!” At this point, I had my ID sticker, so I smiled and showed off my orange Virginia sweatshirt, which I had graduated from 4 years before. The guard was still dubious and we asked him how old I looked and he gave me that leery “…16?” like he was adding years to what he thought because he didn’t want to look like a complete moron. So of course I told him that I was actually 26. He laughed and nudged his partner who had been ignoring the entire exchange, and wanted him to guess my age, but the partner had been paying enough attention to say “she’s obviously 25”. The exchange went along well enough and as we left, I tried to tell them that they’d never had a chance to get my age right because of my charade, but they weren’t paying much attention and I wasn’t going to push the matter because I still didn’t have a proper ID on me.
So, here’s the first lesson why prejudice about age isn’t harmless–what if I was there to do harm? I literally snuck into a hospital, right past two security guards who knew that I was not who they initially thought I was. Whatever their role is, they’re supposed to check IDs for a reason and they failed to do this with me. In any instance where someone is supposed to check the ID of adults, but lets children just tag along in with their parents, anyone like me can just fake my way in unnoticed.
Of course, my story of the hospital just serves to cement the idea that I deserve to be prejudged. I obviously have no problem carrying myself as though I’m younger than I am. And I can project my actual age as well. In fact there are many times when my husband is uncomfortable in a crowd and I take the lead. Growing up the joke was that I was a 36 year old midget because I’m an “old soul” and always was more responsible and cautious than my contemporaries. In fact I have always had little patience for inappropriate behavior–there’s a time and a place for everything, so while I can run and play with the best of my friends, when it was time to be serious, and I look down on immature behavior.
One of the first thing anyone notices about a person is their clothes and clothing plays an important role in what is perceived about the person. It’s easy to blame someone for being perceived incorrectly when they’re dressed against what they’re “supposed to be”. So, one could could claim that if I don’t want to be viewed as a child, I shouldn’t dress like one. Or in the case of other people, if I didn’t want to be labeled a thug, I shouldn’t dress like one.
And why, exactly, should anyone be expected to conform to a society’s whim in order to be treated with respect?
I work in a print shop, in bindery where I can get sweaty and dirty (ink, oil, grease, dust if I’m working in the warehouse). I wear jeans, hiking boots, and t-shirts. Recently I was given some nicer t-shirts and collared shirts with the company’s name embroidered on them that I also wear. I also have a thin flannel shirt, slightly too large, but very comfortable, for those days when I need long sleeves even in summer (I don’t like AC blowing directly on me).
This is how I was dressed a few weeks ago when my husband and I went to a baseball game in Norfolk, with tickets provided by the certain bank that we do a lot of printing for. I was excited for the game, especially since we’d be sitting in one of the suites, a first for me! As we walked towards the entrance, I was walking ahead of my husband, excitedly urging him on when an employee called out to us that if we had tickets we could enter there. We did, so we did. As the first man scanned our tickets, a second said “You look like your under 17, here’s some baseball cards for you”. I was flabbergasted and I looked at him like a dumbstruck guppy as I tried to figure out how to reply to that. The truth was that I wanted the cards, so I didn’t want to correct them and feel obligated to give them back. So I mumbled a thank you while my husband laughed. I was more annoyed when the first man handed our tickets to my husband, even though I was the one who handed them over at first, as he gave us directions to the elevator that would take us to the suites. It felt like he didn’t trust me not to lose the tickets, though it was probably because my husband was a tiny bit closer at this point and I was still suffering from confusion.
I had not intentionally presented myself as a youth. I hadn’t known they were even having a giveaway. I just wanted to see a baseball game. I hadn’t changed my clothes after work. In other words, I was me as me and someone thought I was a kid. I guess that if I wanted to be treated my age at all times I could make sure that I always project myself as older. I could wear clothes more befitting a woman “of a certain age”. But why should I? Why should I be blamed for the mistakes that other people make? It’s one thing when, like at the hospital, I make myself seem younger intentionally. But it’s something else when I’m just being me and I get handed a pack of baseball cards intended for someone a decade younger.
And, I shall end this by saying that I do know what it feels like when I know someone is improperly prejudging me. I’m not prejudging them by assuming that they’re thinking me a child when they’re actually not. If you’ve ever talked to a child or have observed someone speaking to a child, you’ll know that their tone of voice changes. I have heard this directed at me, though of course, it’s the voice appropriate for a 12 to 16 year old rather than an elementary schooler. Maybe you remember being talked to this way.
This is similar to when a black man is brushed aside as prejudiced when he says that he’s being treated unfairly. Because he’s just “misinterpreting the situation”.
Depending on the situation, I will make the prejudicer feel stupid by changing my demeanor and causing them to realize that I’m a competent adult rather than a precocious teen, but you know what, I’ll be honest here: sometimes I’ve just done something embarrassing and instead of correcting them I let them continue to stereotype me because in society, it’s okay for a teenager to trip over their own feet, but for an adult to completely lose control of their fork or end up with water all down their front from the ice shifting in their cup, it’s something to make fun of. With my anxiety issues, sometimes the only way for me to survive an embarrassing situation is to remind myself about these rules. I can laugh with them instead of running out of the building and hiding at home for the next month.
Like I said when I started this post, I’m not out to garner sympathy. I game the system as best as I can knowing how people look at me. And thankfully I’ve never been discriminated against because of my appearance. Whatever issues that may have become problematic were usually cleared up when I opened my mouth and changed the other’s assumption about my age. All I want is to quit hearing that prejudice doesn’t exist and that in all cases it’s the victims fault for not looking right, for not speaking right, for not acting right and that even when they look, speak, and act right, it still must be their fault for misinterpreting the intentions of the other. That is bullshit and as a short white girl, I have experienced being prejudged and anyone who wants to say otherwise should really reevaluate their life.