The occurrence took place seven years ago in a small town in North Carolina. The town’s sparse population is fortified for two weeks twice a year by 30,000 visitors from around the United States. People, from Maine to California and all points in between, converge on the sleepy little town for ten days of concentrated industry trading.
After a busy day of seeing clients, vendors and colleagues, many people come together at parties large and small to unwind and catch up with friends they see a few times a year or make new ones. It was at such one party when the incident occurred.
The room was already thick with people wearing name tags, sipping beer, drinking cocktails and snacking on hors oeuvres when I finally walked in: young and old, male and female, hipsters and old timers.
“I want you to meet someone,” said Bob, a colleague from Texas, who pulled me by the arm and walked me across the room to make the introduction.
As we walked up to the man, he struggled out of the comfortable chair in which he was ensconced and adjusted his shirt that had twisted across his large belly in the process. With his wide open smil, he seemed like a nice enough man. He switched his sweating beer bottle from his right had to his left and extended the now free hand for me to shake.
“Oh, Tamar. That’s a Jewish name,” he said.
“No, mine is actually Armenian.”
“Then I should keep my hand on my wallet,” he said with a chuckle.
My mind went blank.
My body froze.
My blood pounded in my ears and all coherent thought flew out of my head.
I wasn’t quite sure I had heard correctly. The split second in which he had made his statement felt like an eternity.
Awareness of my physical being returned in fragments. I became aware of his mop of wiry grey hair. Then his large protruding belly. Then noticed his large, pudgy hand still holding on to my own which extended from my very rigid arm attached to my now very stiff body.
Still in his grip, my trapped hand feeling like a dead fish, I leaned slightly to my right to better read his name scrawled onto the sticker on his shirt and read the distinctive “ein” at the end of his name. I straightened up, keeping the icy smile on my face, and looked him straight in the eye.
“Funny,” I said “that’s what I’d always heard about Jews.”
The words flew out of me before I realized that I had formulated the thought, let alone spoken them.
I extracted my hand from his, turned and walked away. Crossing the distance from one side of the room to the other in what seemed like two paces, the impact of his statement and my response did not dawn on me until I’d reached the other end of the room and was stopped by the solid wall. I could go no further. Instead I paced. Willing my heart to stop its galloping speed while a multitude of thoughts and questions raced through my mind simultaneously: Was he saying that Armenians were thieves? Who the heck was this guy? Was he calling Armenians cheap? When in history have Armenians been known as cheap? This coming from a Jew!
I have no recollection of how I made it across the room or any other detail from those few minutes following the exchange, but the impact of the brief introduction itself and the sting of the words have stayed with me since.
Stereotyping and racism exist in all of us, no matter how politically correct we try to be or how open minded we think we are. It is during unguarded moments that the deeply ingrained biases rear their ugly heads.
Thinking back on the few moments that are now indelibly etched into my psyche, I am not proud of my knee jerk reaction to stoop to the level of perpetuating negative stereotypes. They come from the deepest, darkest corners of our mind, placed there by forces beyond our awareness ranging from influences in our childhood to “funny” jokes to media portrayals.
We are just as guilty as the man in North Carolina of having particular negative impressions of other ethnic groups. But awareness bring about the ability to change and we can change how we think and control how we are perceived. Through steady vigilance, constant pressure and creating new role models, we can shift our image of ourselves and others into something more positive. It’s not easy and it won’t be overnight but it can happen.