Where Have All the Manners Gone?

by Guest Contributor Aaminah Hernández, originally published on Writeous Sister Speaks

We’ve all seen it. A lot of us have experienced it personally. There is talk all the time about how the youth of today are rude and disrespectful, parents aren’t teaching their kids basic manners anymore, etc. That may or may not be true. But what isn’t discussed so often is the rudeness of older generations.

A white Muslim friend of mine once told me about her grandmother who still uses the “N” word and has made indirect disparaging comments about my friend’s Arab husband and about her wearing hijab. She brushed it off because who has time to stay angry at that kind of ignorance? She figured her grandmother is old, from a different generation where that kind of stuff was normal, she isn’t likely to change now. But my friend’s mother had a different viewpoint. She said that it was fine to be compassionate, understanding the woman’s age and how society was in “her day” but not to excuse her for not having learned anything and choosing not to change.

A lot of us have family members like my friend’s grandmother. And it’s not just those of us who are Muslims, but any of us from any minority know people who haven’t changed with the times. Many of our white allies have family or friends that make comments that, while not directed at them personally, make them shudder. I’ve read other bloggers relatively recently who have said “you can’t stop being family, but what do you say or do when someone you love says something that shocks or hurts you?” Some people have even discussed this in relation to Rev. Jeremiah Wright – we all know someone we respect who says stuff we don’t agree with sometimes but we don’t throw them under a bus for it! (For the record, I agree with the Rev anyway.)

Today in the grocery store (which is rarely a pleasant experience anyway) a considerably older gentleman (really, I’d guess that he could have easily been in his 80s) looked at me and very loudly said “what the heck is that? What do you even call that?” And laughed as he turned his cart (and back) to me and tried to walk away. He was still laughing and happened to have turned down the next aisle that I was going into, so as I turned into the aisle I saw him there, and he kept laughing and shaking his head saying “the things you see… the people they let come into our country… how ridiculous” as he turned his cart again like he was trying to get away from me.

Now, I know he was referring to the fact that I wear niqab. And I didn’t respond at all because I wouldn’t know what to say, and would rather say nothing than be a bad example of manners myself! His questions were clearly rhetorical, there was no reason to attempt to engage him in a conversation. Instead I acted as if he wasn’t there… I scrutinized two brands of a food I had no intention of buying, as if I couldn’t see or hear him at all but was just intent on my shopping, waiting for him to go away, which he did.

The thing is, as I finished my shopping (praying to Allah that I wouldn’t see that guy again), I couldn’t help but to wonder “What ever happened to manners?”

Sure, he’s an old man, set in his ways, unfamiliar with the changing make-up of our city, perhaps doesn’t get out much and probably doesn’t read or watch a wide variety of cultural media. I mean, most people I know rely on Fox News, as if it’s the only media available to them. People who have greater access to more variety. I realize that the sight of me probably was quite unexpected and bit shocking for him. I understand that.

What I don’t understand is that he comes from a generation that really taught “if you can’t say something nice, don’t say anything at all”. He’s old enough to have learned tact, to have figured out that we don’t have to speak everything that pops into our heads. That in polite society we sometimes curb our tongue. I’m pretty reasonably sure that his mother taught him these lessons, because they were common lessons in his generation. In fact, contrary to what it may seem, they’re still pretty common lessons that parents teach their kids.

Now, my son is pretty compassionate and says to me “he was really old mom, and sometimes they just aren’t right in the head”. And he’s right of course. That may very well be the case. But it’s certainly not always the case, and it doesn’t make it less disturbing.

[Latoya’s Note – I really enjoyed this piece because I think it cuts to the heart of many of the problems with interracial relations. Why is there such a lack of manners when it comes to people of color? Why do people think it is acceptable to reach for someone’s hair, or ridicule them in public, like the situation Aaminah describes? Are we really seen as so different (or perhaps, subhuman) that we do not warrant basic human courtesy?]

(Image from Anupam Chander’s blog.)