Being Nice


In 1991, I was sitting in a grad school class–something about literary criticism–and one of the guys in the class stated that he wasn’t sexist. He’d never done anything against women, you see. He was a nice guy. This was true. He was a nice guy. I don’t mean that ironically or sarcastically.

A young woman in the class sitting opposite him (we were arranged in a circle for the class discussion) nodded and said, “That doesn’t mean you don’t benefit from the system.”

Tempers flared from that point on and the professor had to speak up. I’ve no idea what he said. I don’t remember much else that was said. But her words have stuck with me ever since. It helps that I’ve heard echoes of this idea many time since.

Lots of us benefit from systems, perhaps The System, no matter how wonderful we may be individually.

I’ve seen The System in action. I worked in a department store back then, and I struck up a conversation with the security guy. When I mentioned to him that it seemed as if he followed black costumers more than white ones, he nodded and said he did. Then he added that white women were far more likely to shoplift. So, I wanted to know, why don’t you follow them? He shrugged. “I’m just doing my job.”

That white woman shoplifter may not have had a racist bone in her body, but she still benefited from The System. Which is not to say white women don’t get caught. But how many get away with it? Plenty. Though I doubt any of the shoplifters felt privileged.

Sometimes we’re given privileges we don’t see and don’t ask for and don’t deserve. We can sometimes be blissfully unaware of how the person being nice to us was just horrible to someone else. We tend to think people are being nice to us because we deserve it. And we do! Mostly. I mean, I believe in being nice to people. But we don’t necessarily deserve more than someone else.

Not that a long ago, someone I know talked about how wonderful a mutual acquaintance was. This startled me because I thought this acquaintance was a snob. She’d been patronizing and unfriendly to me when she learned my husband and I lived in the neighborhood apartment complex instead of a house. The someone I was talking to lived in a house. So, I gathered the acquaintance in question was nice to her. She figured the acquaintance was as nice to everyone. Why wouldn’t she?

Back in college I read Ann Petry’s The Street. Have you read it? It’s amazingly written and compelling. It revealed a world that still exist all around us today. I can’t recommend it enough. If you love good books and powerful stories, find a copy!

Here’s to working on making the world a better place!

Thanks for reading.

2 thoughts on “Being Nice

  1. I’d posted a lengthy comment on this a week or two ago, but it got swallowed up by some kind of weird network error and I never got back to redo. Will see if I can summarize what I said then…

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