We all need symbols and signs to help us orient ourselves in an unfamiliar culture or a multicultural environment: symbols of social and economical status, or signs that someone is kind, indifferent or aggressive. We also need quite often, within our social and cultural system, an "object" upon which we project our fears, insecurities and anxieties. In the so-called civilized societies, these show-offs and projections are many times very subtle, due to self-censorship. The following true story is an example of what happens when that censorship does not function.
I live in the highly liberal, multicultural and all inclusive San Francisco Bay Area, but my own darker skin had sometimes stimulated the clichés, and the cultural and emotional illiteracy of some of my fellow Americans. The following conversation, between me and a white skin, blonde woman in her 30s, occurred in front of a high-end hotel & restaurant where I was invited to a party. I have to specify first that in San Francisco the Limo driving industry employs mostly people of Middle Eastern origin.
Woman: Do you have a cigarette? Are you a driver (low voice, almost mysterious).
Me (offering her a cigarette): Do I look like a driver?
W: Well ... I was just asking. Are you?
Me (with a joking tone): In what sense you were "just asking"? Why didn't you ask me, for example, if I am a lawyer?
W (puffing with disdain): Because I am a lawyer, I know you can't be a lawyer. So, are you a driver?..
At this point I want to believe it is a misunderstanding, but there is no doubt whatsoever: she judges me by my arab look and assumes that I am a limo driver. I don't answer her question and decide to giver her another chance.
Me (laughing, referring to the fact that she seems to have been drinking a little too much and had no intention to stop): I think you definitely need a driver!
It seems, however, that the length and complexity of our dialog have fatigued her, because she turns her back on me, smoking, forgetting to say thank you for the cigarette I just gave her. Suddenly she remembers her mantra and throws over her shoulder:
W: Tell me if you are a driver. We need a driver!
Me: No, but I'm something you desperately need.
W: Really?!. What? Her sarcasm is reaching a climax right there.
Me: A Cultural Intelligence consultant. I am a Cultural Intelligence consultant.