Once again, in an effort to get some stuff out of my brain to make room for new stuff, I'm going to hash out some thoughts I've been having as of late. There were two instances in the last week that sparked very similar feelings for me, and I would like to dissect them here for you guys. The first was a meme I saw popping up all over the place. It went something along the lines of "I've never heard of a well dressed, well spoken black man getting assaulted by the police for nothing" or something to that affect. The second is a conversation I peripherally participated in. A person made the comment that if women wanted to be respected, they needed to dress a certain way otherwise they were "asking" for mistreatment.
Now I'm just going to call it- those two things were incredibly racist and sexist, respectively. But what scares me is that the inherent racism and sexism in those statements wasn't apparent to some people. What's more, the sentiment that underlies both of those examples is the same, and it's what I want to talk about. Both center around the idea that humanity is something that must be earned. That treating people like actual people- with kindness and respect- is something you only have to do after a person has proven themself worthy of being treated like a human being. Until they have proven themselves, you can treat them like shit and feel completely justified in doing so. But let's back up and unpack this a bit.
A lot of how you respond to this discussion will depend on your basic concept of morality. I am coming from the belief that all people (really, all living things) deserve to be treated with the most basic kindness and dignity if only because we are all sharing this planet and this space. There are similar beliefs in many religious institutions- the Golden Rule and whatnot. If you don't have any beliefs like these or your personal moral standpoint is that all people are basically bad, or bad until proven otherwise, or that they must earn your respect in someway, we are probably diverging at this point. However, I urge you to reflect on this moral belief system as we continue.
For one, consider how it comes back on you. If your standpoint is that other people must meet your own requirements in order to be treated well, it would stand that you must meet the requirements of others in order to expect decent treatment. It should be obvious that people have very different opinions about what is good vs. bad or right vs. wrong. Let's take the examples above. If you think people should dress well and speak well in order to be treated like human beings- do you never make grammatical errors? Are you always in an overly presentable state? What about sweats or work out clothes? Ever left home in your pajamas for a quick trip to the store? Hair unkept? Or the sexist example. Maybe you think mini skirts reek of ill repute. But what about tank tops? Women who wear pants? Your hair uncovered? I can easily find you examples of people and places where any of the above would be considered "bad" or "wrong". So which standard should you be personally held to? And are you ready to accept being mistreated under the rule that no one has to treat you well until you meet their qualifications?
Another thing to consider when we talk about these rules for behavior and their implied justification for maltreatment is where these rules come from. It's no surprise that the majority of the people I saw passing around that racist meme were white. Who gets to decide what speech is proper? There is a long history and scholarship on the evolution of Ebonics and African-American dialect. And American English is itself a bastardization of sorts of English. Who gets to decide what is proper dress? "Proper" is entirely culturally dependent. And when you have a dominant culture or sub culture holding institutionalized power, it's easy to use "proper" as a means of subjugation and disenfranchisement. We (the dominant culture in power) use Our power to create standards that reflect Our own comfort level and custom and hold Them up to those standards-standards which They may not share, had no part in establishing, and may not be interested in emulating- and use Their failure to assimilate (whether due to inability or unwillingness) as justification for furthering criminalizing and vilifying Them and securing Our own place in power. It's a rigged game.
But I urge you also to consider not only the larger cultural implications of these attitudes, but your own internal thoughts and feelings. Namely, why do you feel the need to set these "rules" about how people should/should not act in order to be treated like basic human beings? To be completely honest, when I catch myself trying to play this game in my head, it's usually for one of two reasons. One is that sometimes I find myself trying to justify my own mistreatment. By saying that people deserve to be treated like shit if they don't jump through whatever arbitrary hoop, I can maintain the thought that people in my own life treated me poorly simply because I deserved it. I missed the mark of being "good" in some way, so I was "asking for it". The alternative, of course, is to realize that I did not deserve to be treated badly, but that means that someone I cared about/loved/trusted/whatever was mean, or worse, maybe didn't care about/love/trust me back. And that can be hard to swallow. So sometimes it's easier to pretend that we actually have control over how other people treat us and the we are responsible for our own mistreatment. And by extrapolation, so is that person who got shot down in the middle of the street or raped on their way home from work. The second reason I sometimes fall into this mindset is because to acknowledge that all people deserve to be treated with basic humanity is to also acknowledge the vast number of ways this doesn't happen. It's to realize that slavery and rape and abuse and racism and hate are rampant and problematic. And it's really hard to hold that and not do anything about it. And doing something about it can seem overwhelming, and not wanting to do anything can seem selfish. And let's face it, it is selfish. And feeling overwhelmed and selfish leads to guilt and shame and none of those are pleasant feelings for us. So it's easier to pretend once again that those that are mistreated are somehow responsible for their own fates and that there really isn't a world full of sadness that we should be doing something about.
So my one last point of order is to point out that, even if you buy into the idea that people are necessarily bad and deserving of mistreatment- that they are criminals and whores until proven otherwise- you still have a choice in how YOU treat people. I choose to default on kindness and hold the basic belief that we are all human and all entitled to being treated as such. I fall back on the idea that how we treat those that we consider the lowest of us counts a lot more than whose ass we kiss. Even if you truly believe the world operates based on these rules and you find them legitimate, that doesn't mean that they can't be changed. And if you really do see that we as a species have some serious problems in how we treat one another, you can do something small. It doesn't have to be overwhelming or earth shattering. You can start by treating other people like people. Regardless of how they look, speak, or act. And then you can start encouraging other people treat people like people. And then you can start demanding it.