How to Be a Snob
I am walking home from school when I hear the voice.
I look up, just in time to see a dark object fly past my head. It strikes the sidewalk next to me. Red liquid sprays into the air. Blood!? No, just a sports drink. But from where?
I look around. A car is driving by on the road to my right. Inside are three teens — not much older than I am. They are smiling? No, they are laughing, laughing at me. One teen sticks his middle finger out of the window and again shouts, “Dirty chink!”
I watch silently as the car drives away.
Why does it hurt?
Why does that day remain so clear in my mind? Part of it, surely, was fear. But there is another emotion mixed in there, an emotion that sits in my chest like a stone.
As I stood there, watching the car go, part of me wanted to call out, “No, I’m not a chink! I’m me!” These boys had looked down on me, insulted me, laughed at me for no reason other than the color of my skin and the shape of my face.
And there was nothing I could do about it.
A Common Disease
At parties, I often meet a class of persons afflicted by a certain disease. Immediately upon shaking my hand (they always squeeze hard to assert dominance), they ask, “So what do you do?” That question is the jab, always to be followed by a right hook. “So how much do you make?”
The disease affects their facial features too. Their teeth are too white, their hair too well-styled. As they stare at me expectantly, I feel like a lone strawberry in a fruit factory. Am I worth a profit to them? Or am I destined for the rubbish heap?
In his book Status Anxiety, Alain de Botton names this disease “snobbery”:
“The company of the snobbish has the power to enrage and unnerve because we sense how little of who we are deep down — that is, how little of who we are outside of our status — will be able to govern their behaviour towards us. We may be endowed with the wisdom of Solomon and have the resourcefulness and intelligence of Odysseus, but if we are unable to wield socially recognized badges of our qualities, our existence will remain a matter of raw indifference to them.”
Those kids that drove off laughing made no attempt to see past my physical badges — my thin eyes, my flat nose, my yellow skin. They took all the complexity of a human life reduced it to a handful of data points.
Adult snobs are no better. In the jab-jab-hook of a brief “conversation,” they reduce me to few mental checkboxes in their mind — my salary, my profession, my girlfriend’s waist-to-hip ratio.
In the past, I would shrug off these people as “bad people.” I was morally superior; I did not stoop to their level. They were weak and I was strong.
“Belittling others is no pastime for those convinced of their own standing. There is terror behind haughtiness. It takes a punishing impression of our own inferiority to leave others feeling that they aren’t good enough for us.”
These days, I am no longer so naive.
A Contagious Disease
Growing up, my family rarely ate out — not more than once or twice a year. But when we did, the disease of snobbery was as much in us as it was in anyone else.
We would look at the overweight diners around us and joke, “Look at that guy! He ate his burger and left all the veggies. No wonder he is so fat.” Or, we would mock the food. “Wow, we paid ten dollars for this? Twenty cents for pasta, fifty for tomatoes, some ground pork… I could make this for less than a dollar! All these people are wasting their money.”
Americans were fat. Americans were unfaithful. Americans did not know how to save money, score well on tests, take care of their bodies.
We were labeled, and we fought back with our own labels.
Looked down on in school, it was easy to take pride in the one thing I was good at: taking tests. Ignoring the fact that regurgitating information had little benefit in the real world, I became an IQ Snob.
Those who could not differentiate an integral, who could not tell A/C from D/C, who could not find Iran on a map — they were the idiots, below me, unworthy of my recognition.
Labeled by others, I labeled back. Marginalized, I marginalized back. They judged me by the color of my skin. I judged them by numbers on a page.
I was not lonely. I was superior.
It is dark out. I’m walking home. “Hey,” a voice says. A middle-aged lady is sitting on the concrete. She’s holds a child in her arms, a boy. He’s young, not more than two years old. Her clothes are stained. Flies circle her head. Our eyes meet. She extends her hand. I look away.
Damn beggar, I think, without thinking. She should get a job.