Bias is a funny thing. Sometimes it’s glaring, and other times we are blind.
One late spring day, my husband and I stopped for lunch at a popular family restaurant in a nearby town. The place was packed so we sat down in their U-shaped waiting area, taking a seat against the far wall. It was a typical Midwest small town crowd: white people, diverse only by age, whose families had lived here for generations.
To my right the nearest couple was somewhere about 80. Around the corner to my left was a family of five. The dad, mom, and teenage daughters looked typical of the area. The adult son was the one that caught my eye. Dressed simply in a T-shirt and jeans, his other adornments stood out. He had tattooed sleeves and multiple piercings, including a tongue stud and gauged ears.
My first thought was, “Ow, that must have hurt. Why do that?”
I kept my face neutral and tried not to stare.
About then, the elderly woman to my right, sitting directly across from the son, spoke to him.
Looking him in the eye, she asked, “Didn’t that hurt?”
His family, a bit stunned, paused in their conversation. I mentally shrunk down a bit, embarrassed that she would speak my thought.
The young man returned her gaze and said, “A bit, but not too bad.”
She wasn’t done. “Why would you do something like that to yourself?”
He smiled at her, still speaking in an even tone. “I like it.”
“Don’t you worry about what people will think of you?” she asked.
Still calm, he answered, “What do you think people think of me?”
“You’ll never get a job looking like that.”
At this, the young man’s dad spoke up. He turned to the woman angrily and said, “My son is a fine young man. He has a good job and makes a good living. What he does and how he looks are none of your business.”
“I didn’t mean anything by it,” the old woman said.
We settled into an uncomfortable silence for a minute or two before conversations began again around us. Soon the elderly couple were seated to eat, and others moved on to their meals, including us.
I’m embarrassed telling this, a story of how I judged a person by his appearance. I want to think of myself as someone who is careful not to have biases, who treats everyone equally. But clearly, I’m a mere mortal. We all have biases.
Let’s try this again. What if…
The young man who caught my eye was a young black man.
The young man was Asian, Latino, East Indian or any other race or nationality that doesn’t match your own.
There was an old man with a walker, slowing you down.
The young man held another man’s hand.
A man in a wheelchair blocked your way.
A man with cerebral palsy sat to your left.
A young man with Down syndrome spoke to you.
To your left was an attractive young woman with tattoos.
The woman was wearing a hijab.
The woman was heavy or sloppily dressed or unattractive.
The woman was middle aged with graying hair.
Or what if the woman to my right commenting on the piercings was young and attractive? Would her comments have sounded the same?
Would it be different if the old woman’s husband spoke, instead of her?
This is by no means an exhaustive list. But if we pause and check our reactions, it’s likely that we can identify at least one situation where we feel uncomfortable just because we are confronted with someone who is not like us. This is a natural human reaction. But if we can be honest about this, we can also recognize we are wrong.
After lunch, my husband headed out to the car while I stopped at the restrooms. I passed the young man as I went in. I smiled and nodded at him.
Coming out, I heard two middle-aged men talking in the corridor.
“Did you see that freak with the piercings?” one asked.
“Could you believe it?” the other answered.
As I walked past I said, “Actually I heard him talking. Seemed very polite. I think he’s a really nice guy.”
Then I went on my way.