Why do you see the speck that is in your brother’s eye, but do not notice the log that is in your own eye? – Matthew 7:3
Assumptions. We all make them.
Most of the time we don’t even realize it. And most of the time, they do no harm. But sometimes they separate us in insidious ways. That doesn’t make us bad. It makes us human.
But what happens when we catch ourselves making these assumptions, when we question them, when we consider that the beliefs we hold based on these assumptions are built on shaky ground?
Lesson One: A white woman reading a black-oriented magazine
I had a housemate once who was African American. I’m Caucasian. I often read her magazines, many of which were focused on the African American community. Once I read a story in Jet about a family enjoying a picnic that was all electrocuted when a power line fell onto their car.
One person touched the car and each person in turn tried to help by grabbing the people already captured by the current. The entire family died. Later, I mentioned this horrific tragedy to my friend, but didn’t think to mention where I had read it or the ethnicity of the family, neither of which seemed relevant to the story.
A few days after that, she came up to me wide eyed and exclaimed; “You won’t believe what happened. That story you told me about the family that got electrocuted? The same thing happened to a black family!”
“You mean to say,” I replied, “that it is easier to believe that the exact same freak accident happened to a white family and a black family, than to consider possibility that a white woman read a black-oriented magazine?!”
We just stood there looking at each other.
Lesson Two: “You don’t speak Chinese?”
When I was still fairly new to the blogging world, a commenter on my blog mentioned that he was headed off to bed. Since I was enjoying my morning cup of tea, that comment caught my attention. Here is the exchange that followed.
Me: Oh, are you a night owl?
Him: No, I’m in Singapore.
Me: Are you traveling or working there?
Him: No, I’m Singaporean Chinese.
Me: I’m studying Chinese.
Him: I don’t really speak Chinese.
Me: Wow, you are an one-person-lesson in assumptions.
Here are the assumptions I made about my new Singaporean friend:
- All my readers are in the US so you must be, too.
- If you are not in the US, you must still be an American.
- If you are ethnic Chinese, you must speak Chinese.
Thank you for this lesson.
Understand that I am a person who has lived and worked and traveled overseas and have many friends who are not American. And I have a Chinese daughter who doesn’t speak Chinese. And yet, I still jumped to these assumptions.
Well, you might say, those are harmless. Indeed, this commenter and I laughed it off and became close blog friends. But are they harmless? How do my unquestioned assumptions color the way I think about people, about how they act and think, about how they might be safe or not safe, a friend or an enemy?
Lesson Three: Judging Aziza
The first time I saw Aziza, she came by the house along with the young woman who was my regular babysitter. When she walked in the door, this is what I saw: A young woman wearing lots of metal, on her clothes and through her skin. Dressed all in black with boots that looked like lethal weapons. With latte brown skin and smoldering dark eyes. And an exotic Arabic name I couldn’t pronounce without some practice.
“Oh dear,” I worried.
“I hope she isn’t staying. She should not be around children, especially my children. She would not know how to act with children. She’s probably not very smart. She probably does drugs. She looks dangerous. Maybe she is armed. My children would be afraid of her. Heck, I’m afraid of her.”
Most of these were not conscious thoughts. But looking back, I’m sure some of those assumptions were lurking beneath the surface.
Fast forward. Aziza became my most trusted and respected childcare provider. She was one of the most caring and intelligent people I’ve ever met. She had impeccable integrity. She had deep wisdom about children and I often asked her opinion. My kids adored her.
When she picked Mia up after school, Mia’s popularity immediately rose because I can assure you that no kid had a sitter anywhere as cool as Aziza. All the kids crowded around to get a chance to talk to her, to be in her presence. She was the pied piper of middle school.
Sadly, we lost Aziza when she graduated from university and went off to graduate school. We keep in touch. She is a well-known poet and social activist. She will leave her mark on this world, and the world will be better for it. I know she left her mark on my family and we are better for it.
I don’t think it’s possible to eliminate all our assumptions, but if we can become more aware of them, and more questioning of them, we can begin to see each other without all the filters.