“I was raised to not look directly at people who are different than I am.” This statement, made by one of the participants in the Society of Ingenious Women Idea Lab, made me shift uncomfortably in my chair. We were discussing the well-intentioned but tone-deaf attempts of our parents to raise us to be polite, to be “nice” girls, always aware of the feelings of other people.
I realized that this was my experience, too. “Don’t stare,” my mother told me at the mall, as a young boy in a wheelchair passed by, pushed by a woman juggling packages and coats. Forty years later, I realize that making someone feel unseen is more disrespectful than staring, and it precludes genuine human interaction.
In my youth, I avoided the gaze of individuals who looked different than me, in an effort to be respectful. I wince as I wonder how many people over the years felt dismissed by my disingenuous politeness. After all, what can you really know about anyone just by looking at them, even if they look just like you?
To my way of thinking today, lumping people who share certain characteristics into a group is another way to unsee them. For example, identifying a person by a label that pertains to a large group of people—whether it be defined by race, gender, or class—may feel more respectful, but the person who gets assigned that label may not be comfortable with the association.
Each person will always be biased in favor of self, which is a good thing, because we all need to take care of ourselves. Today, however, it is hard to know exactly how to show up in the world because people are so quick to be offended by the words or actions of other people.
I am stepping away from what I learned about politeness and political correctness to show up as a genuine human being, willing to engage with other people. Messy and imperfect, I am bound to offend with clumsy words and misguided intentions, and I am willing to learn. To that end, I set some standards for myself to improve my relationships with diverse people, because diversity is necessary to move society forward.
Here’s what I am doing:
- Treat people not as I want to be treated, but as they want to be treated. Let them know how I want to be treated in return.
- Be open to listening to others’ perceptions. There is a grain of truth in every observation. What is that grain of truth?
- Remember that people are individuals, just because they look and act a certain way, do not assign them characteristics of a particular group.
- Be kind, not nice. Being kind means engaging on a genuine level with another person in a respectful way as opposed to a polite way.
How do we celebrate the differences in each other? Seems to me that you can’t help treating people through the lens of your bias. This is natural and normal. However, we need to respect individuals for who they are. It is not enough to treat people the way you want to be treated — you also have to consider how they want to be treated, and to do this requires stepping back from how you’ve been conditioned to see the world. Growth is a messy process. There are no easy, quick answers. The best way to move forward is to give grace to yourself and to others as we engage in the work to figure it out.