There’s a heart-wrenching scene in The Help, where Celia Foote, this pitiful thing of a woman trying desperately to fit in, takes a pie over to a party.
The women she hopes to make friends of don’t take kindly to this attempt. They literally hide, so Celia climbs into the bushes, peeks into the windows, to see if anyone’s home. Inside she hears chuckling, shoosh-ing, orders to ignore her entirely.
They can’t be bothered to recognize, let alone accept, her. Why? Because doing that would require getting to know her – entirely out of the question. She was from a “lesser” part of the world, in more ways than one, and the women wouldn’t dream of deigning to welcome her into theirs. Not just because they were cruel, but because they were fragile. If they recognized and welcomed her, that might threaten their world, their influence, their very persons. Better just to shut her out and hope she would go away.
The strategy worked. Celia left. At home, her so-much-more-than-maid, Minny, eventually set her straight. “Don’t be takin’ those women any more pies. You understand?” It was an important lesson.
I’ve got to be real with you. I’m a strong woman. I was born strong and I’ve been made stronger, thanks to a life filled with equal parts blessings and challenges. But damned if I don’t sometimes feel like Celia.
Let’s be clear, I’m not sitting in anyone’s front yard with pies. I know when, where and with whom to invest my energies. I’m certainly not losing sleep over anyone who’s made their lack of desire to know me more than clear.
I also recognize that, more than half of the time, that lack of desire is based on fear. Fear that getting to know me, understanding and appreciating what I can contribute, might somehow threaten them. So they turn into shady, under-the-table-hiding characters. Fear is a powerful motivator, friends. I recognize this behavior for what it is, and at the same time, I do sometimes feel its effects.
I haven’t always felt this way. I’ve felt it in a couple different seasons of my life, and while the cast of characters changes, their characters are remarkably similar. I felt it first as a non-trust-baby in a private K-12 school (I actually had to test in – and even then, was placed on a waiting list until someone with money couldn’t beat my score). I felt it again when I left that school (when the same intellect that got me in couldn’t beat the sticker price). I felt it again when a college administrator offered, with a coy smile, “if you can’t afford it, you can leave,” after hearing my struggles to front money toward the completion of my degree.
(Don’t worry, I bested that individual by graduating early, still Phi Beta Kappa, and went on to the fabulous life I have now, thanks to several incredible humans and their rock solid character).
Still, the “it” I felt was shame. Shame to be who I was, shame to be from something someone thought “less than desirable.” It’s been a hot minute since I’ve felt that feeling. But bless my own heart, here we are again. And I’m talking about it because someone else out there has felt this before. And someone will feel it again. And the behavior that causes it is unacceptable, and needs to be addressed. As someone strong enough to address it, I am addressing it now, and as many other times as I need to address it, until it stops.
I love New York. I love love love New York. But sometimes I do not love New Yorkers. For all the talk of an open society, of cultured and civilized and educated people, of people who “know better” than to pre-judge someone for being from somewhere else, for sounding or dressing or looking different, sometimes, I find that New Yorkers are EVEN MORE closed minded than the people they look down upon.
It’s absurd, but when you think about it, it’s really just indicative of camouflaged fragility. Thank God I’m stronger than that crap, or I’d have left already. Meanwhile, I pray for the individuals in question, who have varying degrees of awareness about what they’re doing, as they try to shut out, ignore or shame me for being anything other than a pure-bred wealthy tristater.
I didn’t come here thinking I’d be a perfect fit. I didn’t come here thinking this would be a magical assimilation experience, where I’d take what works from NYC and NYC would learn to accept who I am in a Disney-style happy ending. The struggle I knew I would face was half the appeal of trying. But for damned sure I didn’t expect to be looked straight through, by more than a handful of people on more than one occasion, simply because I sounded, thought, carried a heritage, that was different from theirs. And yet here we are.
The details of these transgressions don’t matter. The people who engage in this behavior aren’t the point of the story, and neither is their exact behavior. Rather, what matters is this: GOOD GOD, GOOD PEOPLE OF NEW YORK, be more self-aware, practice some empathy, and get down off your high horse. Get to know your neighbors, your coworkers, your fellow humans. In the long run, closing your doors, shuttering your windows, and rejecting people accomplishes only one thing: it calls into question your own fragile existence. From the outside looking in, I’m thankful that not all New Yorkers are this way.
Which reminds me (And maybe I’ve helped remind others? A girl can dream.): it’s the people of New York who make New York great. Like it or not, I am one of them. I don’t need to bring anyone any kind of proverbial pie to know that, but carry on if you must, hiding under tables and missing out on all I’ve got cooking. I know my way around the kitchen.
Ryan Vale McGonigle