I've been watching the news coming out of Baltimore like most people, with a sense of sadness and helplessness. Compounded with the actual events, is a conversation about race, prejudice, and discrimination, that often ends in frustration or complete shut down.
When I graduated from college, I served in AmeriCorps for a year in Paterson, NJ. For those of you who don't know, Paterson is a densely populated and diverse city facing many of the same issues of violence and poverty. It's also home to some wonderful people that I had the pleasure to know and work with during my time there.
Let's just get this out of the way: I'm a white woman. Talking about race and prejudice is uncomfortable. I'm going to do it anyway.
Part of my training for AmeriCorps, was day long seminars or workshops every few months. Usually they were about problem solving, or teambuilding, but the one I remember the most and often refer back to, was our diversity training. I remember in particular, this one exercise, that often rises up into my consciousness in times like this, and that I try to learn from and apply to my daily life. I share it here as my humble contribution to this important conversation, and for what I hope can be a point of personal reflection.
So here's the game:
Look at this picture and make up a story about this person:
What is her name? occupation? where did she go to school? Is she married? Does she have children? What are her hobbies? What's her favorite movie? What is her relationship with her parents? Where did she grow up? Where does she live now? What are her political views? Is she religious? What religion? What does she wish for herself? Is she happy?
Don't hold back now...this is all for the sake of learning!
When we did this exercise in our diversity training, we all had a great laugh seeing and hearing the different stories. I was presented with a picture of a clean cut, 20 something white male with a peach sweater draped over his shoulder, standing in front of a white Mercedes. I gleefully named him, Bradford Harold Kensington Jr.
Now, take a look at your story, how much of it is actually true?
The truth, is that all we really know is that this woman is a model posing for a stock photo. None of us have any idea of what her story actually is. Same with dear Bradford, he was ripped out from an ad in a magazine. Bradford doesn't exist.
We all make up stories in our heads based solely on appearances and preconceived notions. These stories are formed from many sources including our cultural upbringing, family, social status, media, and personal events and circumstances.
We all have prejudice. The important thing to remember is that those prejudices are a story. They are not real. It doesn't matter whether or not the story is inherently positive or negative. The stories we made up about the girl in the photo, or that I created for Bradford years ago, were based completely on physical appearance and our own imaginations. They are OUR stories, not THEIRS.
Before we can have a constructive and nuanced conversation about race, I believe we should first acknowledge that we are fallible. We hold prejudices that were instilled in us from a very young age either intentionally or inadvertently. We are capable of making assumptions, of making a snap judgement, and being wrong. But we are also capable of great compassion, empathy, and the ability to change our minds and to learn to do better the next time.
Prejudice doesn't only extend to other people. Look in the mirror, what is the story you are telling about yourself?
When we understand that our first impressions are just that, stories, we give ourselves the opportunity to change the narrative. We can tell a different story. We can be open to asking and listening when someone tells us their truth.
You are the author. You have the power to change the story, but you first have to know that you are writing it.