Welcome to my first attempt at the Blogging A to Z Challenge! 26 posts in April, one for each letter of the alphabet (I get one day off per week). I will explore meaningful words to apply to perceptions, attitudes, behaviors, and relationships. It’s a personal journey, part of my mission of self-assessment and development through writing. Thank you for stopping by, and please feel free to comment! 🙂
Yoga instructors. Football players. ER nurses. Asian college students. Old white men.
Hold these likenesses in your mind’s eye for a moment. Who do you see?
Was the yoga instructor a man or woman? The football player? It’s impossible not to make assumptions, to apply stereotypes. Such constructions help us make sense of the world. They allow us to move through countless human encounters quickly and automatically. And, they can limit us far more than we realize.
One spring day my kids and I sat in the car, waiting to exit the parking lot after church. Three men, Caucasian, in their 60s, crossed in front of us. They were well-groomed and overweight—grandpas, likely. Their expressions were neutral, absorbed in conversation. One of them looked a little winded from walking. They were perfectly unremarkable, and they did not notice us.
I felt an acute flash of fear. It was visceral, as if, at any moment, they could decide that my kids and I were not worthy of being at that intersection, and that they somehow had the power to impact my life in ways that I could not control or influence. Three apparently unassuming white men. Fascinating.
I remembered this story when a friend and colleague recently shared this blog post on our assumptions about surgeons. I realized that despite being married to a surgeon, having multiple surgeon friends, and trying every day to live with an open mind, I still ascribe to the stereotype of the mean surgeon. It comes out when I hang up the phone after a pleasant conversation with an ENT fellow. “Wow, he was so nice,” I think, surprised. Or when I feel righteously annoyed after a terse and condescending interaction with his attending. “What do you expect,” I say to myself, “he’s a(n old, white, male) surgeon.” Nobody would ever say that about a pediatrician.
I don’t shame myself for harboring the mean surgeon and old white men stereotypes. They were born of a certain reality and make me appropriately cautious in new situations. I don’t think I behave badly because of them, and I readily acknowledge when the stereotypes are broken. But the realization that I hold these assumptions so deeply—subconsciously—gives me pause. What other assumptions do I carry, and how do they limit my relationships? I think it’s fair to say that we all carry shards of racism, classism, and other forms of blatant prejudice. Here’s what I also think: It’s okay. We can’t help it, that’s just how it is. Denying it just makes it that much more insidious, subversive, and toxic. I’m prejudiced, you’re prejudiced, we’re all prejudiced. The more we say it, the less scary it gets. The first step is acknowledgement without shame.
But we cannot, and must not, stop there. We can’t only say, “We can’t help it, that’s just how it is.” We must take the next step, which is to manage it better.
I think an excellent antidote to toxic assumptions is appreciation.
Dictionary.com includes the following definitions of appreciate:
- To regard highly; place high estimate on: to appreciate good wine.
- To be fully conscious of; be aware of/ detect: to appreciate the dangers of the situation.
Let us first fully appreciate (be aware of/detect) the scope of our prejudices: Their cultural, familial, or experiential origins, their subtle influence on our perceptions, and the covert ways they manipulate our thoughts, words, and actions toward others. Awareness is key. It is also hard. It’s hard because we know we shouldn’t be prejudiced, it’s bad. Prejudiced people are bad, they do bad things, we don’t want to be like them; if we admit our prejudices then that means we are bad, that we are not worthy. STOP. The only way to keep from acting on our negative stereotypes and perpetuating racism and xenophobia is to fully acknowledge their existence and confront them, head on. They do not define us. They are not all of who we are and what we stand for. Their presence does not negate all that is good, generous, and inclusive about us. AND, they are part of us. We cannot escape them by way of denial. If we can call ourselves out honestly, lovingly, and with forgiveness, we can then integrate our prejudices, and put them in their place. Appreciation does not mean approval of, or abject subjugation by, our biases. It is simply the first step to living wholly, to knowing and owning all of ourselves, and moving with intention and mindfulness.
Then, let us apply the other definition of appreciation to others. Let us regard more highly those whom we may automatically, however subtly, belittle in our subconscious. How might we do this? Look for that which we share. She is a mom. She must love her kids as much as I love mine. What are their circumstances, what lessons is she trying to teach them, and what would I do in her place? Why did he become a doctor? He must want to help people like I do. I could never do what he does, so high risk, so much responsibility. God bless him, we need people like him.
Let us then solidify the process with words, out loud. “I can tell you really love your son.” “Thank you for caring so much about our patient.” It may sound trite, even silly, at first. But we can never underestimate the impact of a few kind words, not just on others, but on ourselves. When I acknowledge myself in you, I make a connection. I see you, I recognize you, I appreciate you, as I do myself. Prejudice thrives in silence and denial. It cannot long survive being spoken out loud and it certainly withers in the presence of true connection.
We will always make assumptions. Tempered with some well-placed appreciation, though, perhaps we can get through life with a little more love and a little less suffering.