28 November 2014
It’s Thanksgiving, so naturally we’re all supposed to be thinking about what we are thankful for as individuals or unit groups of people. Having thought about it, I think I’d have to say that this year, the thing I’ve realized most and valued most is acceptance. This probably won’t come as a surprise to some of you.
Interestingly enough, my personal belief is that the human power of acceptance comes from mindfulness, awareness, and presence. Perhaps that is also to say that we, as humans, would be more accepting if we didn’t lose touch with that as we grow into adulthood; acceptance is a power that we can lose, if only to regain. There are plenty of stories about kids asking questions about topics that some adults have a hard time with, like being trans* for instance, getting a pretty simple, but straightforward response, accepting it, and then moving on to more important questions, like what’s for lunch.
Acceptance helps us deal with a world in which we cannot possibly understand everything around us and comes from an open mind. We can’t allow ourselves to be comfortable with little boxes and labels for everyone and everything, especially broad definitions built on arbitrary traits that turn into stereotypes. This obviously has negative impacts on the people that it suppresses. Just take a look at the study about girls being good at reading and boys being good at math. Look at the bisexuals who struggle with telling people of their sexuality because they constantly get the response that self-labeling as bisexual is really just them “not wanting to admit to being gay.” Some people born of one gender grow to feel like and self-identify as the opposite, but can’t express themselves in public because of things like the panic plea . Some people come to self-identify as no traditional gender at all. Some would rather die at their own hand than go through the pain of trying to self-label and try to gain some minimal level of acknowledgement, let alone acceptance, from the people that matter to them or the communities because they are so oppressive.
Even still, there are other groups who aren’t in political spotlight that should have equal rights and protections, but legal defenses don’t stop ignorant people from doing terrible things, it just provides consequences for those actions. Take a look at Sophie Lancaster and this powerful video. She chose to express herself through her dress and was the subject of a violent and fatal hate crime for her self-labeling. Furries get harassed with the misunderstanding that they are into bestiality. Emo’s and goths are unnecessarily thought to be suicidal. People with anxiety are told to “stop being nervous.” People with depression are told there is nothing to be sad about. Introverts are told to participate and be active in their life. People with bipolar disorder are avoided because people think they’re “crazy.” The oppression that a lack of acceptance causes comes in many forms and intensities, all of them fundamentally wrong. It comes from the result of a closed mind. It comes from not being aware of what it is like to be human. It is, unfortunately natural. Our brains are wired to try to assume as much information as possible. It keeps us feeling safe and it has been evolutionarily useful. However, it is something we must catch ourselves in the act of doing and be mindful of at every turn. It is something that we must resist. The keys are recognizing and reducing the assumptions you make, giving room for others to self-label and self-identify, and asking questions in a non-assumptive manner.
Assumptions are a natural course of learning about the world and arise from our ability to recognize patterns. The assumptions we learn to make are based on life experiences or our normative biases. If you grow up in a white, suburban neighborhood, you might make the assumption that everyone you meet is some form of Christian. It’s highly likely that you wouldn’t even know you were making this assumption until you meet someone, become friends, and find out that they aren’t. This “change” in information about your friend will likely come as a shock to you, but it wasn’t a change at all. It was entirely new information. Naturally, your brain may react negatively to learning that your assumption was wrong because that can impact your survival and safety. This happens to me sometimes when I tell someone I’m gay.
Allowing for self-identification is an important part of letting others be themselves. It is difficult because it requires you to not make assumptions about others. Take control of those and let people explain who they feel they are to you. Try to remove the place of stereotypes and don’t create new ones based on the new self-identities you learn about people. Most importantly, don’t let the correlations reinforce society-built labels and stereotypes. The best part of this practice is that you can feel more free to self-identify. You can break free of the traits others say your stereotype should have that you then impose on yourself, consciously or subconsciously. You may not even realize the value of this, but hopefully that feeling alone will encourage you to further investigate and reflect on yourself.
Asking questions is the absolutely biggest step to breaking down assumptions and stereotypes because it is the primary way you can inform yourself. However, asking questions also requires that you listen to those around you. For instance, one of the biggest problems with this step is approaching people who are visibly introverted or have social anxiety. They don’t have to say something for you to listen. In cases like this, it might be best to ask questions standing beside the person instead of in a face-to-face, “confrontation” style. Not doing this risks you seeming like you are making assumptions about them being an extrovert or being comfortable in random, spontaneous social situations. Also make sure to learn how to see when it’s best to stop asking questions.
Following these three general principles is a good recipe for expanding your awareness of the human condition and the great diversity that brings. We all know what diversity brings to teams. With enough learning and some self-reflection, you could provide some of that diversity, having a better team and living a more fulfilling life. I know I do.
Also, just remember that understanding is not required for respect.