When I was a young adult in the 1990’s, I had a conversation with an older relative. She lived through the Dust Bowl, the second World War, the Civil Rights Movement, and all the other events of the 20th Century. I’d never heard her say a disparaging word about another race, and she certainly would never identify herself as a racist. However, one day she said:
I don’t have a problem with black people, I just don’t know why they want to move out of their neighborhoods.
While there was no intended malice, the statement reveals a prejudice, a mindset, a belief system, or whatever you want to call it. Growing up in the post Civil Rights era, it struck me hard. How could she actually believe, much less say, something like that? I absolutely didn’t agree with her. I’m not a racist, but…
The Blindness That We Become
The experiences that we have, from our family to our friends to our education to just life happening, shape who we are. Because we are limited creatures, living moment to moment, we can only absorb and process a limited amount of data. It’s part of what makes us each unique, but it also can make us blind.
We are social creatures. We tend to associate and collect ourselves in groups that have some commonalities. Whether it’s geography, race, religion, nationality, interests, or whatever, our innate drive is to connect with other human beings, and it is far easier to associate with those whom we perceive as similar to ourselves.
Our social drive only tends to amplify the individual experience that we are having, and that is that “others” are different than us. We each experience this individually when we look at every other person around us. Combine that with the comfort of belonging to a group, and when we look out into the world, everyone not in our group looks even more foreign.
Confronting the “Other” in a Mexican Bar
When I was 18, I was a chaperone on a mission trip to Mexico. Our accommodations were a dormitory outside of a large city. One evening, another chaperone and I decided that since we were in Mexico, where the drinking laws were different, we would slip out for some adult activities.
We headed to the bar that was about a mile away, on a dark, isolated, country road. As we weren’t old enough to drive the rental cars, we walked. I had no idea when I stepped into the establishment, that I was about to get a lesson regarding my own bias and on being human.
About twenty men sat scattered around the open-air building. It wasn’t a movie scene, but it quickly began to feel like one. Trying to appear more mature and experienced than we actually were, we headed straight toward the bar. Within a few paces, the silence and stares from the patrons were overwhelming. The bartender intently watched us as we sat down. The words came out of his mouth deliberately
You can’t be in here. You don’t belong.
At that moment, fear washed over me. We’d shown up someplace that we didn’t belong. The silence of the room was deafening. We were in serious trouble, in another country, surrounded by what suddenly looked like some very “bad hombres.”
A Racist Reaction?
We’ve all had those moments. Our mind kicks into automatic. The thoughts that flow tend to come from someplace deep within us. Whether it was from personal experience or stories or media or whatever, our survival instincts kick in.
Everyone in that building had instantaneously become part of that nebulous concept of “other.” They weren’t like me. Their skin was different. They spoke a different language and were a different nationality.
In my mind, whether I knew it or not, I perceived that they saw me as an “other.” My caucasian, American friend and I were something outside of who they were. Even as we sat motionlessly, my instincts were furiously working to figure what to do in this completely new-to-me situation.
The Moment of Truth
“You can’t be here. You don’t belong.” In the brief moment, before the next words came out of his mouth, my thoughts had traversed all these terrible scenarios. Because the situation was outside of my experience, my mind instantaneously generated potentially negative outcomes. Whether that came from watching old westerns, the community in which I grew up, or was simply a primal survival reaction, it happens. I am human.
“This is a members-only bar, and you’re not members.”
Boom! All of the mental pictures that I had drawn instantly disappeared. But, I was right. I was an “other.” But the categorizations that I dreamed up were wrong. I just wasn’t a dues-paying, card-carrying member of this establishment. It wasn’t the color of my skin. It wasn’t that I was American or spoke a different language. Those things were obvious, but they weren’t important as to why I didn’t belong.
Since you’re from out of town, you can stay and have one beer, but then I’ll have to ask you to leave.
The next half hour was pleasant as we chatted with a few of the other members of the club. They were interested in hearing about where we came from, our mission work, and then they wished us well as we headed back to the dormitory.
The Lesson of Being Human
The reality that we create in our mind is often completely out of sync with the realities of others around us. Skin color, language, and nationality were part of the visible differences between us and everyone else in that bar. As humans, when we gaze out into the world around us, we have this innate need to clump people together by their commonalities. Skin color is one of those easy-to-use groupings.
Had I walked into an all-white, Norwegian, biker bar, and had an identical encounter, no one would say that skin color played into my fear, but my internal experience would have been the same. I would have processed the circumstances based on some construct of their perceived similarities versus the differences that I perceived between us and them.
In the exercise of being human, we are going to see differences. We are going to group people according to our perceptions. We have a limited set of experiences upon which to draw, and with that comes an incredible capability to make decisions, draw conclusions, have opinions,
AND THEN CHANGE THEM.
I’d created a grouping of “others” based on what I could see at that moment and based on my very, very limited experience and conditioning. In a split second, my perception changed. It was an insightful moment in which I realized that some of the programming deep within my brain was biased. I realized that the grouping of “others” that I had created, along with the danger that I was in, was nothing more than a construct within my own mind.
The Ongoing Challenge of Being Blind
Without a doubt, it is critical for us to understand when we do this with race or skin color. It is paramount for our society to deal with these issues, and reject racism. But if that’s all we do, then we’re just scratching the surface. The broader task for each of us is to be aware and self-reflective whenever we perceive a group of “others” or place someone in an “other” group. The moment that we create that grouping of “other,” we significantly overinflate the perceived differences and negate the commonalities.
The truth is that the commonalities that we share with other humans will always exceedingly surpass any perceived, or real, differences.
If we live our lives focused on the differences, then the “others” will appear to be absolutely different. Too many people do this, as my older relative did. It’s almost effortless to create a narrative in your head that delineates them from us. After all, the truth is that everyone is different from you. We are each unique.
Ultimately, we are each alone inside of our minds, desperately wanting to make connections with other human beings. Those connections are core to what gives life meaning. The more we allow ourselves to generate and focus on those categories of “others,” the less capability that we have to find commonalities and to make those connections that meaningfully matter.
You see, I’m not a racist, but I am human. My past has influenced me. I’ve made assumptions about others that were wrong. But more than anything, I understand that the gift of my free will and ability to change gives me an opportunity to be better today than I was yesterday.