Rescuing compassion in the age of Covington

January 27, 2019

“Bi-zzz-ia? Bitsy?” Ever since Mrs. Campbell took attendance that first day of kindergarten in 1979, I’ve been asked daily to explain the pronunciation and origins of my name: buh-she-uh — it’s Basque.

I’m also asked about my profession.

Being an etiquette consultant is a niche field and invites curiosity, with the most common question being, “How did you get into it?”

It is clear as day the moment I felt a calling for this field using decorum and doilies as a vehicle for morality.

In the days following 9/11, there was a retaliatory hate-crime shooting in Arizona of a Sikh American gas station owner who the murderer mistook for an Arab Muslim.

I could see then that a lack of education in geography, religion and customs, combined with racist tendencies, could lead to a tragedy caused by “mistaken ethnicity.”

Having said that, an education is not required to be a tolerant and compassionate human being, nor to know right from wrong.

From a young age, I’ve been fortunate to be a world traveler. I was born abroad to hippies adventuring and living as free spirits in a foreign land. Individually, they explored Europe by Volkswagen bus and then on to exotic locales such as Kabul and Peshawar; both ended up in Katmandu, where they met.

When I was a child and young woman, travel continued to shape my life. It instilled in me a curiosity for culture and custom. And this wanderlust has served as a great educator, impressing upon me infinite respect and acceptance for diversity. But far more important were the values I was taught. Not an unkind word was ever spoken about skin color or of a faith I did not share.

You don’t need an airplane ticket to gain a respect for the world’s diverse cultures. A library card and a well-funded and, more importantly, well-intended education can do that. But it takes a child’s parents and elders to provide tools for integrity and comportment, and to recognize when they’re not being practiced.

So, when I saw video footage of a clash of marchers in Washington, D.C., in the news recently, I was disappointed and saddened. The Covington High School students surrounding Nathan Phillips, an esteemed Native American elder and Vietnam War reservist, was bitterly poignant.

Phillips was in Washington to participate in the first Indigenous Peoples March and was wrapping up the day with fellow marchers in their permitted zone — an irony not lost, I’m sure, when he witnessed the tension between black Israelites, spewing obscenities and vitriolic attacks, and the Covington High School group.

Instead of being encouraged to move on by chaperones after being verbally assaulted themselves, young peer invited peer, resulting in a mob that escalated into verbal engagement. It was the epitome of hate begets hate.

“Look at my America here. My white and black brothers here, they’re tearing at each other,” Phillips recounted when deciding to defuse the situation with drumming and chanting. But the students could not appreciate the gesture.

Instead, a sea of cocky boys felt confident and entitled to stare down an elder, and an indigenous elder at that. Anyone with manners would know better not to.

And anyone properly raised and educated on the topic of indigenous history knows how inappropriate it would be to perform tomahawk chops while Phillips was drumming. Some witnesses said they heard boys yell, “Go back to the reservation” and “Build the Wall,” but those chants are not audible on video of the incident.

That’s the humanitarian crisis we are facing. These young men of the 21st century, future fathers and members of society, felt emboldened to physically move into the personal space of another and make ignorant, ill-informed statements. The smirk-faced teen’s family hired a crisis management team to carefully craft a new rhetoric to appear a victor to be applauded for not engaging in a physical attack.

As a mother of two young children, I wonder how leading by example shapes their character. Our daughter, age 2, is short on words, but if there ever was a case that you are who raises you, it might be her when she says, “football” or “touchdown,” and expresses her desire to ski.

She is a daddy’s girl at the moment.

What I’m most struck by, despite her limited vocabulary, is her capacity to express compassion with a sweet-sounding “oooohhhhh,” ending a high note. She has a natural ability to recognize when it’s applicable. If I’m wearing a scarf that belonged to my late grandmother or point out a booboo on my toe, she understands the significance by expressing herself verbally.

I truly believe children are born neutral and that racism and intolerance are learned behaviors often taught by example.

Through etiquette, I tutor my clients on how to feel confident for the right reasons, such as being respectful and humble in a variety of circumstances.

For adult clients, that might mean dining and dressing a certain way because it shows respect for the environment they’re in — abroad on a business trip, perhaps. For the younger set, it might mean giving a handshake, accompanied by eye contact and a smile.

My goal is to work with them when they are still in their neutral state of being because bratty kids become bratty adults.

In learning how to properly greet someone or pen a thank-you note, a person learns how to interact with society and shape their moral compass. May these young men and our country chart a new course.

Bizia Greene is an etiquette expert and owns the Etiquette School of Santa Fe. Send your comments and conundrums to hello@etiquettesantafe.com or 505-988-2070.

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