A detective gathers clues in order to form conclusions about a mystery or crime in order to solve it. In this same way, humans (and animals) gather visual clues in order to form conclusions about the world around them. For instance, if you are in a courthouse and you observe a man with a modern, neat hairstyle wearing glasses, a sharp, black suit, expensive shoes and carrying a briefcase, what do you conclude? Likely, you assume that he’s a young attorney. However, this is merely an assumption, based on his appearance and nothing else.
Everyone has the compulsion to form immediate conclusions about their environment – that’s how we survive. We use knowledge that we have accumulated from things we’ve observed, experienced or “heard about” and apply them to our lives with the intent to avoid conflict and pursue future positive and beneficial experiences. However, at a certain point, this hasty tendency becomes worthless – even detrimental.
When people assume that black women are “sassy,” or that fat people have low self-esteem, or that girls love the color pink, or that gay guys are feminine, they begin to lose their ability to know the individual. Fortunately, there is a way to fight these automatic assumptions: PRACTICE.
For instance, I was sitting irritably at a stoplight one day and a heavyset woman was crossing. She was walking with some difficulty. I suddenly said aloud, “Wow, she is fat.” As soon as I heard myself make such an out-of-character statement, I furiously chastised myself. What made me say that?? Yes, the woman was fat. Why would I mention it or even take note of it? I hadn’t said, “Wow, she is blonde,” or “Wow, she’s wearing purple.” So what was it that prompted this inappropriate outburst? As I searched my feelings, I realized that it was my own discomfort with the difficulty she seemed to be having getting across the street. The fact is that some people have more difficulty doing certain things than others. There is no reason for that to make me uncomfortable. Well, on top of that, I felt that she was unfashionably dressed, which subconsciously indicated laziness to me. I feel great frustration when I perceive laziness, and that affected my judgment in this case as well. However, there was no possible way for me to know what type of person this woman was. She might simply not have enough money to buy clothing that I considerable fashionable or, worse yet – gasp! – she might fucking like the clothes that she’s wearing; perhaps she didn’t dress herself solely to meet my approval today. In all reality, I was becoming frustrated because what I saw in front of me was unattractive, and this prompted a disgusted reaction instead of merely an indifferent one. We are taught by the media to loudly judge and reject those who don’t meet our personal criteria for attraction. I’d executed their programming flawlessly, I thought. Sickened by my own behavior, I admonished myself for being rude and inwardly talked out my true feelings about the woman until I had isolated my true motivations and examined them carefully. That was one of several battles I’ve had with my inner prejudice and I’m certain these battles won’t end any time soon. Personal motivations can be extremely complicated and varied, and that’s what makes this particular inner conflict a long-term, ongoing one.
Many factors can affect our reactions to a person’s appearance. Aside from preconceived notions borne of personal experiences, many times when we think we have a problem with someone personally, the root of the discomfort is that we’re looking at someone we’re not attracted to. For some reason, there is a human tendency to dislike (or, at the least, avoid) people we’re not attracted to. That’s why “attractive” people are treated better than “unattractive” people. Unfortunately, whether or not a person appeals to us visually or sexually should have nothing to do with whether or not we assign them worth. It’s just another form of prejudice, but it typically goes unrealized since we humans have the uncanny ability to justify things in our own minds so we don’t look like monsters to ourselves. It’s essential to try to break down this wall as well.
Part of the problem is that we forget that the person in front of us isn’t a product to be bought or approved by us; they are human beings with feelings and thoughts, just like we are. Often, we fail to give credence to the perspectives of others, and we fail to acknowledge that WE CANNOT POSSIBLY KNOW WHAT IT’S LIKE to be them. Sometimes that’s a fact we must face and be left without answers in order to see things more clearly. For instance, I will never know what it’s like to be a black or Mexican person living here in America. All I can do is listen to these individuals and hear what they have to say, and attempt to piece together an inkling, but I must admit to myself that I will never understand life through their eyes. All I can do is try to be empathetic, find common ground in the human experience where I can, accept the fact that my perceptions may be wrong… and care.
The best we can do is try to eliminate most of our knee-jerk reactions through self-imposed behavioral modification. The media inundates our brains with suggestions that judgmental reactions and thoughts are normal, even “cool.” We are taught that judging others elevates us and proves our belief in our own status – that belief in our own superiority might someday make it true. Unfortunately, this lie has consumed the personalities of men and women everywhere and caused cattiness and backbiting where no cause for it previously existed. Fighting this indoctrination takes years of practice and it may never be mastered, but it’s definitely worth a try.
Step two is to GET MAD AT YOURSELF. You cannot skip this step. When you feel angry at yourself for a behavior, you are less likely to repeat it – or at least more likely to be acutely aware of your mistake, once it’s made. It’s like a mental spanking – when you start thinking judgmental thoughts, you suddenly recall how sore your butt was last time.
Step three is to ANALYZE YOUR MOTIVES. Where did this thought come from? Dig deep. Don’t shy away from this self-exploration. Discover the root of the problem through brutal excavation. For this to work, you have to be brutally honest with yourself.
Step four is to COUNSEL YOURSELF. Explain to yourself why your reaction was unacceptable and force yourself to take another look at that person, this time without preconceived notions or unnecessary animosity. See them as a person, a human being. Pretend you’re psychic and try to put yourself in their shoes for five minutes and see through their eyes. (Your analysis of their thoughts will obviously be inaccurate, but I find this to be an effective practice, regardless. The idea is to get yourself to care enough to try.)
These steps are not fool-proof and I can’t guarantee eventual mastery over your inner Catty Bitch, but I can promise progress and awareness. And that’s one giant leap for humankind.
Photo courtesy of Not Bad For me, Not Good For You
I realize that I might be accused of being a decade too late for this discussion, but looking back at 1995, the Star Trek writers did a truly phenomenal job of painting a flawless portrait of our first female captain, (Elizabeth) Kathryn Janeway.
In my teens, I’d skipped the Star Trek Voyager series entirely. I took the attitude, as devoted TNG Trekkie, that nothing could ever be like The Next Generation, so why bother? Now, at age 2*, as I finally embark on a journey of self-discovery and feminist theory, I find that I am eager to discover strong, female role models to admire. Loneliness frequently haunts my voyage and sometimes the weight of despair about the state of our world and its ingrained sexism engulfs me. But if I can find evidence of egalitarianism and show proof that sexism needn’t be present in all fictional depictions of women, it becomes easier to revitalize my hope and faith in a positive future.
Janeway very much revitalizes my optimism. I’ve watched the complete first season (I’m partway through Season 2) and I am utterly satisfied that her character was invented and executed with incomparable equity and sensitivity. She conducts herself professionally while retaining charm and personality. Her mind – and wit – is sharp at all times. She exudes strength and perseveres heartily through adversity. The other characters relate to her in a respectful manner (or else they learn to do so in short order) and she even has a sense of humor. Neither too harsh nor too soft, she stands up for herself and others when injustice or disrespect rears its head. She speaks for those who have lesser voices and maintains high standards of personal integrity.
There are millions of unwanted stereotypes that could’ve crept onscreen, such as:
- A complete absence of sexuality
- Overdone harshness
- Overdone sexuality
- Exaggerated youthful appearance
- Heavy makeup
- Skimpy or cleavage-accentuating uniform
- Obsession with her body image
- Emotional vulnerability (not to say she lacks sensitivity, but she consistently conducts herself as Captain.)
- Obsession with her age
- Competitive attitude toward other women
- Subservience toward the second-in-command male
- Control issues
and much more… but these things haven’t surfaced. And as I continue my journey into the great unknown, I am comforted with Janeway by my side. If she can do it, maybe all of us can.