This morning I went with hubby and family to a popular local bar and grill for brunch. The place is always packed on the weekends, full of couples and families and generally just anyone looking for a generous serving of breakfast classics; eggs, bacon, ham, homefries, toast, pancakes… you name it, you can get a heaping mound of it on your plate.
A few tables away from us was a group of six people. I thought perhaps they were a group of friends or a sports team out for a meal together; you see that a lot in the suburbs. It was a mixed gender and a mixed race bunch, across a spectrum of ages – young adults to middle-aged. Again, not so different from any other group you might encounter in my city. I didn’t pay much attention to them until one of the men in the group shrieked loudly, startling me and many people around me.
Naturally I turned to look and immediately noticed that the man who had made the noise appeared to have a cognitive disability of some kind. After having yelled, his face was all screwed up in concentration or frustration and as I was watching he let out another loud groan. The man next to him turned to him and spoke calmly to him and everyone went on chatting and eating. The group in general seemed fairly nonplussed by the small commotion.
Around the restaurant, people went back to their meals and the waitstaff seemed completely undeterred. There were a few more outbursts throughout our meal, but nobody seemed particularly concerned once people realized that there wasn’t anything to worry about.
But what struck me really wasn’t the man who yelled, or the fact that other patrons in the restaurant accepted it without complaint, although that was nice.
What really struck me, during a conversation with my husband as we were driving home afterwards, was the man who helped him.
My husband commented that the helper was really great with the man, staying calm and talking to him and even stroking his head at one point to soothe him. Having a person with cognitive disabilities in the family ourselves, we notice these things.
The more I went over the scene in my mind, the more I started thinking about biases and prejudice and why they are so often wrong. I mentioned earlier that the group was mixed gender and race: there were a few white women who looked to be in their late twenties or thirties and all casually dressed in yoga pants and hoodies; the man who had yelled out was a young Asian man; and his helper was a tall, large black man with his hair in cornrows.
So as my husband and I were talking about the helper and how effective he was at keeping his companion calm, I thought about how this big, imposing man was probably perceived in other circumstances. I imagine that he is often subject to the biases and prejudices of people because of his size, his appearance and his race. Any one of these attributes alone may not cause you to think twice about him but combined, he fits into the common stereotypes about black men – if I said football player or bouncer at a club, or much worse – thug – you’d get the idea. I don’t think any of those stereotypes involve him gently caressing a frustrated disabled man in public. Over omelettes.
I have been doing a lot of thinking lately about how people become prejudiced in the first place. Is there something about our society – about human nature itself – that makes it unavoidable that we develop biases of some kind? Maybe it’s not gender or race but maybe class, or language, or ability, or height, or weight, or education, or family size, or sexuality. Is it possible to conceive of a world where our children are raised completely without SOME pre-conceived notions about others? Where we accept before we assume?
I’m not a sociologist so I can’t answer those questions. While I would love it if we somehow could get to such a utopian society, our current reality is that we’ve all got biases, maybe lots of them, and they only serve to hurt and divide us. So what are we going to do about it?
It seems to me that we have three options:
- We remain ignorant of our prejudices and biases and continue misunderstanding and mistreating each other because of them;
- We acknowledge our prejudices but find ways to justify them, continuing to misunderstand and mistreat each other because of them;
- We acknowledge our prejudices and challenge them every time they rear their heads, working slowly but surely to diminish them, disprove them, erase them and remove their power over our behaviour. We stop mistreating each other because of them.
I choose door number three.
I admit that I have biases. I revealed them a bit earlier when I chose the images of football player or bar bouncer to describe the gentleman in the restaurant. Had I not seen how he behaved towards the disabled man, I very well could have looked at him and jumped to conclusions about him – almost certainly the wrong conclusions. Even if it were only the briefest of thoughts, it’s not acceptable and it’s just plain wrong.
My examples of football player or bouncer suggests a macho, detached toughness; a passionate athlete; a flamboyant sportsman. These images don’t do justice to the remarkable example of kindness and acceptance exhibited by this man. He didn’t use his size and authority to try to control the outbursts of his companion, he used gentleness and human touch to connect with the man and re-focus him. If I had looked at him and only seen – or just accepted – that he was the stereotype in my mind, I would have missed a beautiful part of his character.
I can’t wave a magic wand and make stereotypes and bias and prejudice go away. But when I find them within myself I CAN examine them, question them, expose them, tear them apart and throw them aside every time they come up. I can choose to assume the best about people rather than the possible worst. I can try to remember that people are complex and complicated creatures. We so rarely fit neatly into any one category. And every time we forget that, we all lose.