Ever heard someone say, I sure would like to be a fly on the wall to hear that conversation? I’ve come close. I got to spend the better part of a day with my wife’s elderly step father. Although I’ve known him for almost thirty years, his framework for understanding the world and family relationships was well established before I came along, and there is very little room in it for me. So as the conversation flowed and ebbed, I observed as if under Harry Potter’s cloak of invisibility. I suspect that his world view is a more typical American view than many of us would expect.
Family, for him, are his close relatives, people he has known for sixty years or more, and those closest to my wife and her siblings in their early adult lives. All others are incidental adornments to be treated kindly but of no real consequence. The memories of the way it was are more real to him than anything in the present, and our visit was an opportunity to dive into them, bringing them onto the stage of life once more for an encore of tears and stories. There is nothing wrong with that, and much to be treasured, but it is a well defined and limited world that allows in little light from outside.
The rest of humanity has its place and function. In fact, those places and functions are also well defined. For him, every person is identified by their race, and every race is assumed to have certain behavioral characteristics that are well known to him. White people are further subdivided into sets according to their countries of origin, each with incontrovertible characteristics of their own. Brits, for example, are very nice, bright, and utterly inept at anything practical.
Surprisingly, none of that is expressed with the slightest indication of contempt or sense of superiority. It’s just the way things are in his world, and he assumes it’s the same for everyone. At the same time, it leads into a world of implied threat and fear. Certain races are known to be thieves. Those people are around him all the time, so the threat of being robbed is always present. Some races are known to cheat, and so the fear of being cheated is always near at hand. And never trust a mechanic who might be English or Mexican.
It’s a fascinating thing to be an all but invisible witness to the unfolding of his world, and to spend time reflecting on it. It’s not very much different from the world my mother lived in, nor, I suspect, from a world that is very common throughout the country. I think it is a very different world from my own, but is it?