What Does Difference Look Like? A Non-Vegan Tale

November 11th, 2013 | Categories: Uncategorized

Difference is not something visual. At least it’s not only visual. It is behavioral more broadly as well. How someone talks, walks, stands as well as what they wear and what their skin and hair color are can all indicate difference. So I wanted to share a story to expose what difference looks like.

It’s been a few weeks since it happened at a restaurant in Florida. Ironically, the restaurant was in one of the most inclusive restaurants I have ever seen. When my family and I walked in we saw people from every race, age, ability, and class. The restaurant was packed.

It started when I went to the counter and ask for a cappuccino. The cashier apologized that she couldn’t give me one. I wondered why considering that various types of coffee were advertised on their menu and it was a cafe-type restaurant. I assumed the espresso machine must have been broken. Nope. Instead they ran out of their homemade almond milk. The conversation went something like this:

Me: I’ll take a cappuccino.
Her: I’m so sorry. We can’t. We ran out of our home made almond milk.
Me: Oh. Don’t you have just regular milk somewhere?
Her: Oh my no. Of course not.

That’s right. Vegan restaurant. No animal products. Ooops. The look on her face was priceless. It was as if I had asked her to urinate on the counter-top in front of me. This was understandable of course because what I had said was so repulsive to her. How could I think such a thing? Milk…in coffee!!! Clearly I was very different from this cashier.

So then I went to get my dessert from their refrigerator case. I’m not usually a fan of a vegan diet so I hedged my bets and although it was only me, my husband, and our two kids I bought six desserts. Seemed like an easy choice for me. I knew I would at least like one of them and I would get to try a few different ones since I wasn’t that familiar with Vegan food. In my mind I was having a Vegan dessert tasting menu. No one said anything when I went to the counter but I was getting some strange looks…from the patrons!!! The looks were of confusion especially when I mentioned the order was to stay. Why would a family of four need six desserts to stay? I only processed this on a very small level. I knew I was being looked at strangely but didn’t really grasp why. Yet, the looks telling me I was different were enough to make me account for my behavior as a violation of some norm I didn’t know existed. The conversation went something like this.

Cashier; Do you need a bag.
Me: No. They’re all to stay.
Patrons: (looks of confusion)
Me: I guess I must be hungry, huh?

Right. Vegan. I wasn’t fully aware of what ‘vegan’ meant as a lifestyle. Turns out that veganiam (not veganism as I thought) and even vegetarianism involve “protecting the environment and helping animals that are treated inhumanely [as well as] conserv[ing] natural resources.” Gluttany is kind of counter to the whole conservation thing. Oops. Two strikes. I’m not feeling really welcome in this restaurant.

So we eat. Everyone in the restaurant seems to be enjoying themselves. I didn’t love any of the desserts but my husband and I managed to get through one completely. The kids ate their ice creams about half way each. That left three desserts. One I didn’t like at all and knew I wouldn’t eat. The other two I thought I would take home and maybe munch on but more than likely throw out later. We get ready to leave and I can’t seem to find a garbage can to get rid of the big pile of garbage we have. So I go to the counter holding the two half eaten ice creams in my hands and ask her for a garbage. She says she can take them. Then the conversation went something like this.

Her: Oh. They’re not done.
Me: No. They ate about half though.
Her: Do you need a cover for them.
Me: No, they’re done with them.
Her: Won’t they eat them later?
Me: No, they’re going to go to bed soon.
Her: Oh. But that’s such a waste. Maybe you will eat them?
Me: We don’t really like ice cream.
Her: But maybe your children will have them tomorrow?
Me: Well, we’re staying in a hotel so we don’t have a freezer in our room.
Her: Oh. I’m so sorry to hear that. Well. (Deep Deep Sigh). Ok then.

The way she walked away was priceless too. It was as if I just told her that my pet had died. She was so very dejected. She walked so slowly away from me as if every step was an effort. Right. conservation. Oh, and that’s what those looks were for earlier. Ooooh. I didn’t bother giving her the other dessert to throw out that I knew I wouldn’t eat. I didn’t want to be on the other end of the glares I would no doubt get from everyone in the restaurant for doing that. For throwing out an almost uneaten dessert I would have no doubt been treated like a criminal by the cashier as if I had killed an animal with my bare hands for fun. I think I need to leave the restaurant now.

When I teach my class on stereotypes, I always have my students engage in an activity in which they place themselves in a situation where they are different. Some want to force the ‘difference’ by wearing things they wouldn’t normally wear or acting in ways they wouldn’t normally act. I don’t let them do this. If they did, they would just end up being dismissive of the results. They’d say it wasn’t a ‘true’ test anyway because they were faking the ‘difference.’

Instead, students have to just be themselves but in a situation in which the cultural identity they belong to is not the dominant one in that setting. Students wear their cross necklaces into synagogues, Yankees hats goes into a Red Socks bars (if they are over 21), and sweat pants (if that’s what they normally wear) into Barney’s (and their reputation has not been stellar on this front recently). I require this activity because I want my students to know what difference looks like, especially when they don’t expect it.

Now, I didn’t tell you my ‘non-vegan tale’ to get your sympathy. On the contrary, many of you may think my gluttony deserved what it got and worse.

Instead I told the tale because I want to expose you to what many people experience every day because of their age, race, gender, and so forth. Until you experience difference when you least expect it, you don’t really know what difference looks like.

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