The day after Christmas, I unceremoniously tripped over a phone cord, fell and smashed my face into a space heater. I quickly sprouted a very swollen nose, had several scrapes and bruises, and two partially black eyes.
As the initial pain and swelling began to subside, I was out and about following my normal routine. And, I found myself quite surprised by strangers' reactions to my bruised and swollen face.
I soon noticed out of the corner of my eye that people were staring at me when I wasn't looking. When I looked directly at them, they would quickly divert their gaze. Sometimes they even walked a little farther away. Well, for goodness sake - I had bruises, not leprosy. This odd behavior made me stop and wonder how life must be for those who, like me, have visible injuries that eventually go away, or for people who have a permanent disfigurement. I wonder what it is like for the person who behaves or dresses differently than the norm (whatever that is), and receives this cold reception from the world.
What drives the behavior of looking away when someone appears to be different? Granted, there was nothing attractive about my bruises; but how curious that people now avoided me when, before my injuries, they would have looked me in the eye and acknowledged my existence.
What assumptions were people making about me when they avoided my gaze? Were they thinking I shouldn't be out in public looking like that? Maybe that I should have been a more conservative skier and this wouldn't have happened, or that I should stay out of fights and I wouldn't get hurt?
As I reflected on my experiences, I sadly realized that prejudice is a far too common and insidious occurrence in our society. In many cases, prejudice is learned from our parents or caretakers; this learned behavior usually develops as a result of making assumptions. We constantly make assumptions about people, sometimes without considering which are accurate and which are not. And then, without a second thought, we tuck them away as fact in some dusty corner of our mind.
There is nothing wrong with making assumptions. Assumptions help us to anticipate what might come next and also to frame the context of our world. The problem occurs when one thinks and acts as if the assumption is an undisputed fact. Unfortunately, many of our beliefs are based on unconscious assumptions we are not even aware exist. Hidden assumptions can lead us away from the facts, and as a result, they can be difficult to recognize and correct.
What is your immediate response when you encounter a disheveled person with alcohol on his or her breath? Do you place that person in the category of homeless, alcoholic or unemployed? What assumption prevents you from simply observing that this is a person, with no internal judgments related to looks or behavior?
How many times have people said or thought something about you that wasn't true? I suspect they based their comments about you on assumptions they had not yet checked out. Think back to a time when you looked away rather than acknowledging a person who looked or behaved differently. Where does your learned behavior come from?
Attempt to develop awareness and rid yourself of prejudices and assumptions that lead you to stereotype people. Adopt logical, critical thinking and strive to secure actual facts before making assumptions. Recognize people for who they are, not who you believe them to be.
Linda Lute, LAC, MAC, is the executive vice president of Specialty Behavioral Health at Southwest Colorado Mental Health Center, Inc.