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How “Regular” Divides Us

If you go into a Dunkin’ Donuts and ask for a “small regular coffee,” you will be handed a small coffee with two creams and two sugars. No other instructions are required. Just those three words: small regular coffee. The rest of us weirdo coffee drinkers have to give detailed instructions.

“I’d like a large coffee with two creams and two sugars? (Freak!)

“Can I have a small coffee with two creams and no sugar?” (Are you a dentist or something?)

“Give me a medium coffee with no cream and three sugars.” (Seriously? Who are you?)

I’d like to know who established that two creams and two sugars is so universally accepted as the correct amount for a small coffee that it deserves the title of “Regular”?

Who gets to decide? …I have a point, I promise.

I was at the opening session of the 6th Annual Community Connection Exchange in Montpelier, VT hosted by the New England Foundation for the Arts, and the speaker asked us to write down what we wanted to get out of the conference. She then asked us to do what I (and probably most people) hate about going to conferences: an icebreaker exercise.

In this icebreaker, I paired up with Carlos from Chelsea, MA, and the ice broke so quickly, we got off topic and were discussing inclusion and diversity in the workplace. Carlos has worked in many different settings, but as a Dominican-American man, he is often the only person of color at the table.

He said co-workers have felt a sense of pride in having a “diverse” workplace, but they don’t take the next step of incorporating diverse ideas and values into the organization’s culture.

They want the credit but don’t want to change the status quo. The powers that be still get to decide what’s “regular” and Carlos and other people from minority groups are welcome to be included as long as they don’t change the norm.

Carolos then told me a story from when he started his first job after college. He went down to the cafeteria to eat the lunch that his mother had packed for him. It was a meal she made all the time with tuna and rice. There was a co-worker sitting at the table with him, who asked, “What are you eating?”

Carlos said, “It’s sort of like tuna casserole.”

The co-worker replied, “Does your mom ever make regular tuna casserole.”

To Carlos, his lunch was regular tuna casserole. It was regular to him. Just as whatever version of tuna casserole that the other person ate was regular to them.

In some cases, “regular” can be the cause of harmless confusion and unintended miscommunications. A few years ago, friends and I went to an Irish pub for some drinks and a bite. When our food order came, my friend Ed was handed a plate with guacamole and French fries, and he looked confused.

“Ed, what did you order?” I asked him.

“Guacamole and chips.”

The waitress was from Ireland, where “chips” are French fries. She had brought him her version of what he asked for. We all had a good laugh over it.

But sometimes “regular” can have more nefarious consequences. What happens when what you do, say, think, eat and represent never seems to meet the standards of “regular”? What happens when you are constantly told you are weird, interesting, different, unique, unusual…? What impact does it have on a person’s psyche and self-esteem when the definition of “regular” constantly eludes them?

Classifying something as “regular” or “normal” automatically classifies everything else as not “regular” or “normal.” This might not seem important waiting in line at Dunkies or having lunch in a cafeteria with a co-worker, but it can be a slippery slope.

I identify as a straight white female. That self-description stands alone and doesn’t imply anything about anyone else’s identity. But if I said, “I am a straight white female, which makes me a ‘normal’ woman,” that statement (which is not true) defines “normal” as being straight and white, and therefore excludes everything else from that definition.

“Regular” and “normal”–along with their shady cousin “Average”–masquerade as tools for reaching consensus, but can be deceptively divisive.

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