Friday, June 19, 2015

Through the Eyes of Someone Else

I’ve been trying to gather my thoughts on the current state of race relations within the United States for quite some time now. It isn’t an easy thing to do, as you have opinions thrown from people, the media, “experts,” your friends and family, etc. and you SHOULD sift through that information to get to a conclusion. I think people that try to simplify that issue are tending to ignore how many things it actually touches. We – as humans, do have the tendency to categorize things to lighten our cognitive load and a lot of that categorization is based on sight as it takes the least amount of energy (unless there is a physical disability). While we can say all we want that “I don’t see color,” you do – even if you are colorblind you see changes in shade, darkness and hue. You see it. You live your lift based on it. Admitting that is the first step.

I am not coming from a self-righteous place. I used to be the one saying, wow these people use their race to get what they want, I’m not racist, I have black friends and LOVE their culture (especially their dancing) and if they would just act right around cops or authority, they wouldn’t have an issue. Those are all fine and not inherently hurtful or malicious, but they are part of the problem. All of these are not taking the step back and realizing that the world that YOU or I see as a white individual is NOT the world that someone who is perceived or IS a non-white individual sees. Getting to that place took a very long time for me. I mean, I’ve had struggles and I just didn’t understand why that group would harp on things (at least that’s what I always thought). So I’ll give you a glimpse into the journey of understanding that I’ve gone on. It will never be complete, but I think it’s important to note that it takes hard WORK and a hard look at yourself and things that make you feel secure.
The first foray I had into this was in high school. I was a PROUD member of the step team and I was a cheerleader. I was the only white girl on the step team and loved it. That group taught me all kinds of really cool things and were very accepting of the notion of me wanting to be a part of their group, even though I was different. They let me help with dance choreography, since I did it for the cheerleaders and it made me feel like I was contributing too! Then we were all called into the office because of “vulgar dance moves” and they were calling for the immediate disbandment of the group. The sponsoring teacher was even pressured into not sponsoring it. I spoke up – I said I did the choreography and the move that they were referring to was actually in the cheerleaders’ choreography as well. I went on to say further that in this instance in the past with the cheerleading team, if something was deemed offensive, it was communicated and we would rectify it before the next performance. Why was this group automatically disbanded? They let it go and we were able to continue, but the significance of that double standard hit me much later in life. I still didn’t get that my step team EXPECTED to be treated differently until years later.

The second time I saw a difference in how the world treats non-white individuals was when I had a coworker offer me a ride home from my first job after grad school. My car wasn’t working and he generously offered to drive out of his way so I didn’t have to wait on a friend. He was a black man. On our way through an upper middle class area (I don’t even think it was a predominately white area, but I could be wrong), we were pulled over. Now, I am a NOTORIOUS speeder and have been pulled over 19 times. I am used to traffic stops, but what happened next was shocking to me. As soon as we pulled into a lot (to not block traffic) the cop rushes towards the car with his flashlight up yelling “HANDS ON THE WHEEL.” Mind you, my friends hands were already there. No cop had ever said that to me. Every time I was pulled over, I was always digging for my license and insurance card. Once he got up to the window, he looked at me and asked if I was ok, which completely caught me off guard and I answered yes. Then he turns back to my friend and asked if he knew what he did wrong. We BOTH answered no (he wasn’t speeding or violating traffic laws that I knew of). The whole time I felt like we had done something really wrong and the cop was really aggressive. Come to find out, the headlight was out. Once we both reacted with surprise and both thanked him, he let us go. Now – let’s be clear. This wasn’t about the outcome, this was about the IMMEDIATE suspicion of wrongdoing and aggressive actions taken. I’ve never experienced that, even when I back talk police, much like the girl in McKinney, TX at that pool party. If I get pulled over for no reason or asked to do a sobriety test when walking from a TGI Fridays to my car, I definitely ask for the cause in a not so nice way. I’ve never had negative consequences because of it.

Right or wrong, I never experience aggression on that level in my many conversations with cops. It could have been because I got all nice cops, but it could also be that I’m not categorized as a threat as a white woman. While these categorizations can be helpful, being cognizant of how they can be harmful is just as important. We’ve seen so many examples of people who seemed like they weren’t a threat (John Wayne Gacy, Ted Bundy, Aileen Wuornos) that actually were and we’ve seen people who looked like a threat that were not (Eric Garner, Dajerria Becton, Milton Hall). I’m not blaming cops specifically, but since they are the ones enforcing the law (and I thank them for that and their service), they tend to be the ones highlighted. It isn’t JUST cops that do this. I categorize too. I notice if I’m walking alone in a parking garage and I see a man that I immediately get my keys ready as a possible self-defense weapon and walk faster. I don’t do that when a woman is around. While that is categorization, it doesn’t mean it’s right. I have to look for signs of a threat rather than using the shortcut of my sight.

I provided two examples of when I really started to see that people are systematically treated differently based upon how they are categorized. I’ve experienced it as well, being a woman and all. Growing up, I refused to think that I couldn’t do things because I was a girl. I never felt like I was less than men – I killed at math and played sports and was strong. The overt treatment is few and far between, it’s the subtleties that speak the volumes. I’m categorized as not knowing anything mechanical or technical and that I want to get married and have a family. that I can sew. While one of out of those three examples is true, that’s what is attributed to me by mere sight.
Once I started to understand how I was categorized, I started to REALLY LOOK at how others were categorized. How they were treated straight off the bat from most people. How it differed between groups (i.e. a woman categorizing a woman vs. a man categorizing a woman vs. a woman categorizing a man and same goes for races, perceived sexual orientation and religion as sight only provides a perception of those two). How it was more positive for some groups and more negative for others.

I also started to really listen to my friends in other groups. They are MY FRIENDS! Why would I discount their views without giving them adequate listening time, thought time and question time? Many of my friends who have been saying this for years I never even ASKED. That isn’t being a friend. And many of them were so happy I finally did. It took a lot of courage on my part and a lot of patience on theirs, but seriously, if you can’t ask your friends about their views and accept them, even if you inherently disagree, you aren’t being a good friend. I also didn’t just hide or unfriend them on social media because I disagreed with their views. Evolving as a person and seeking out differing views is what makes you a better person – it helps you grow. I also did a lot of reading. I read anything I could on the subject from both sides of the fence.

But what occurred to me the most is that we aren’t necessarily on opposite sides. No one likes to be categorized negatively based upon how they look. We have all of these stories and adages of how people look one way and prove to be something else. “Never judge a book by its cover.” I think a step in the right direction is to accept people’s experiences as their reality even if it is not yours. And have the compassion to try and make it better by “walking a mile in their shoes” even if it is figuratively. Think through events and how you would be treated if you were categorized differently. How would that mechanic treat you if you were a black woman? What about the bouncer if you were a white male? How about a waitress if you were an Asian woman? Or a fellow airplane passenger if you were an Arab male? THAT is the first step to opening your eyes and that is the action you can take. We all say we want peace, understanding and less violence and frustration. Take the step to get there rather than just saying it. See the world through the eyes of someone else.