The moment I was born, without lifting a finger, I moved close to the front of the line. I moved ahead of all the women. I passed all the people whose skin was a darker color than mine. Because this is America, I was ahead of most of the non-Christians. I moved ahead of most of the people that weren’t born here, and all of the people that were here illegally. As I matured, I moved ahead of almost everyone who was younger, then started passing people who were older. I eventually passed people who lacked a college degree, people who had less income, people who were LGBT, people who were sick, ex-offenders, and many who were disabled.
I didn’t have to work to get these things, they were given to me. Given to me by the people who were like me, yes, but also by those whose skin was darker than mine, by women, by immigrants, by those with less education; and by employers, landlords, bank managers, and college admissions officers. Their words, body language and tone of voice all told me where I fit in. The only people who muscled me aside or challenged me were people who were passing me. In a million ways, subtle and overt, I was slotted into my place close to the front of the National Line.
It’s like starting a new job or joining a new church. We spend the first few days getting the lay of the land; at least in large measure, we let everyone who is there already determine where and how (sometimes if) we fit in with the group. After a while, we settle in and life goes on.
It may be a convenient moment for women, among others, to interject that they have been oppressed for millennia. I don’t argue that point. And I embrace that we have and are changing. But when I was being formed, most women did not themselves believe they could do everything that a man could. This unspoken doubt, cultivated over centuries, influenced at least their subconscious interactions with men and boys. It may be convenient to blame men for the oppression, but women were complicit, if not active participants, conscious or not.
We are constantly bombarded with signals from birth to death. From the moment we come into the world everyone else begins to shape our environment and who we will be. A mother living on the Upper East Side in Manhattan, driven to get her daughter into the best schools, will shape her child one way. A low income single parent living just a few miles away, worries bleakly about her son’s future and shapes her child very differently.
The receiver of the signals also plays a role. Over a childhood, what shapes us transitions from pure signals to filtered perceptions, from external forces to internal processes, from chaos and anarchy to ordered reflection. Our experiences, coupled with the signals, form a context filter through which we interpret the world, for better or for worse. This is risky if we’re not aware; we can all point to circumstances where someone misinterpreted a remark and a small war broke out. We need to keep in mind that you can only legitimately be offended if the intention was to offend you, just as you can only offend another if that was your intention. Anything else is misinterpretation and untrue.
So here I am in line, facing forward and moving along. Today, I can see the backs of heads; of women, and people with darker skin. I can see head scarves and yarmulkes. I see gray heads, blonde heads, brunettes and redheads. Most are moving away from me, and I’m keeping up with others. I’m still passing a few, but the pace of my progress is easing. And the signal I’m getting is that perhaps it’s time to look back at the people behind me.