When I was nine years old I remember very distinctively a conversation my dad had with me. He sat me down and explained to me the importance of not treating people differently based on their ethnic background or their mental or physical limitations. I felt the import of what he was trying to say very clearly.
Throughout my life I can see many areas where I have observed just the opposite of this take place. Even in myself at times, I’ve let the subtle attitudes of others around me affect me even though I knew better. Let me tell you an embarrassing story.
When I was a teenager I worked at a fast food restaurant, Wendy’s. I saw one girl about my age, get hired with a physical disability. She was a short, sweet girl, with one arm that did not work. It appeared to have never grown.
Immediately after her arrival, behind the counters there was talk. She was assigned to clean the dining area which got a little chaotic during the lunch period. The women I worked with were considerably older than me during that day time shift. I want to include that detail because this wasn’t the mindless talk of the young- these were parents and adults. They criticized her for her limitations, and complained about her to management.
Slowly this negative talk started to creep in on me and my thinking. One lunch hour I went to help her because she was behind, and I remember walking over irritated. As I stood by her cleaning trays, she spoke to me in her sweet, mild manner and the emotions in me shifted. I was humbled. What was wrong with me? I knew better. This was a decent human being with just as much right as any to work, and all that negative talk was foolish and prejudiced. The sad part?
Management listened to the complaints of all the jackals, those negative women, and my friend was let go. Looking back now it’s hard to believe this is something I witnessed, that actually took place. It seems so unethical now and I wonder how many times this has repeated itself through history.
I see these patterns take place in many ways. A common problem I’ve seen in Canada, is how French Canadians are spoken of along with the First Nations community, and Americans just south of the border. I’m not even touching on anything political, just interesting comments people make that show they are using the pattern of “us” and “them” creating divide that they don’t even realize.
I can happily say that I have dear friends that come from all of these backgrounds and more! Taking the time to get to know people from different cultures or countries than yourself definitely widens your perspective. However it wasn’t always that way for me.
I remember feeling prejudiced about French Canadians, without being aware of it. It wasn’t until I lived in Mexico, and actually happened to befriend a girl from Quebec that I changed my tune. It’s so simple. In any culture or country, their will be ignorant people but there are also good people- like you and me. We can’t label everyone to be a certain way. Now my husband is French and I am confronted by strange negative comments about his culture by people who have no idea they are actually carrying around prejudice. I feel like I’m constantly on the defence, and this is a man with the same colour skin as myself but a different culture and language.
When people are different, or come from somewhere different, it doesn’t make them somehow inferior or us superior. In fact, every person has something superior to you and me, be it a quality or skill, someone else has something better than you have. It’s good to recognize that instead of trying to bring them down.
Some people have never had the opportunity to be on the side of the “others”. If you’ve always been raised around people like you, with little exposure to other cultures and ways. I experienced this for the first time in a tiny town in Guatemala. First of all, in a different country, new language. Second, in a volunteer group made of 98% American who were actually almost all from the same State. We looked the same, and spoke the same language, had the same goals to make a difference but I spoke just a tiny bit different from them. Then came the jokes, and nit picking on these differences. “Why do you say that? That’s so weird. That’s wrong”. There is no right and wrong, it’s just different.
It was so minor in the grand scheme of things but it was frustrating being the odd man out. Nobody recognized how this made me feel and I realized, I was the “other”. An experience I’m grateful for now because it taught me I don’t want to make anyone else feel that way. We need empathy for others, what would it really feel like to be an outsider… imagine it, and get to know them.
I’ve even touched on this sort of “us” and “them” thinking when it comes to personality types. Some have a strange sense of superiority to be classed a certain way. “My type is the best” and the others are somehow lesser. Again, remember EVERYONE has something superior to you. Then you will have no need to feel superior again.
If you look closely, you can find this in almost any category of life. Once you see it, it’s hard to ignore. It’s good to take the time to recognize it and be cognizant because just like in my own personal experience, the subtle prejudice of others can rub off on us and our thinking.