Saturday, January 24, 2009

What Kind of Jerk Am I?

OK, I'm a prejudiced jerk. Let's get that out of the way right off. I'm mad at myself and have berated myself for the last couple of hours. I'm horrified. I thought I was further down the road to enlightenment. Nope. Dark ages, that's where I live, in the frigging dark ages.

This morning after being afixed to the floor via a complex maze of straps, the WheelTrans driver informs me that we are going to pick someone else up on the way. "No problem," says I. We head off and go quite a ways East and I glance at my watch wondering if I'll get to work on time, I go West. It was very dark and the street was covered in snow and lined with huge snow banks. The driver had to gingerly park near the bank to be out of the way of traffic.

From where I sat I couldn't see anything as she had opened the back door for entry, the side being blocked by a snow drift. I glanced around and all I saw was a long black coat, a cane and a terrified gait. I turned back and waited while the elderly woman was strapped into the seat behind me. I hadn't seen her but I just knew that she had white hair, done in a bun.

Then we hit the 401 and went East, I glanced at my watch, I go West. After making our way through a maze of strip malls we pull up in front of the drop off destination. The driver opens the back door and then assists the elderly woman to her feet.

Then ...


Around the back of the van comes this incredibly young, incredibly hot (if you were of the lesbian persuasion - oh, straight men too) young woman of maybe 22. Her coat was black, but fashionably cut, she was impossibly thin and her cane was beautiful. She stopped to greet a co-worker and smiled at something he said, sun burst through clouds. She was beautiful. She was hot. She was NOT anything that I 'saw' in my mind.

I see a crutch and assume elderly and frail.

What kind of jerk does that?

A prejudiced one. One that anticipates stereotype rather than makes ready for suprise. One that sees categories not individuals.

I am shamed.

Beat me.


Shan said...

Yeah, it happens. But hey - if you were perfectly unprejudiced and possessed not a single cobwebby, unswept corner of your subconscious, you would have no capacity for empathy. We are able to put ourselves in the shoes of others only once we've tried them on, deliberately or not... So maybe it turns out that the prejudiced are people too.....something like that.


Aren't I philosophical!

Heike said...

Sounds to me like you are human, Dave.

anne said...

1) Like the others say, you're human.
2) You realised your prejudiced assumption and are facing up to it - better than denying it.
3) Guilt doesn't achieve anything.

Anonymous said...


A note of complaint here. It's SHAAAZZZZZAM. People who don't do their research annoy me, please be more careful in the future.


Andrea Shettle, MSW said...

Wait -- you're human?

*clutches my heart in the throes of cardiac arrest* I never knew!

Seriously -- I don't think it's realistic or even productive to hold ourselves up to a standard that says we're never supposed to respond to stereotypes at all. Most of us are pretty much hardwired to function by filtering certain of our perceptions through stereotypes. A nicer term for it is "heuristics." Heuristics became a default neurological setting in the first place because they do save us a certain amount of neurological processing time.

The secret is to be aware of this tendency in ourselves and be prepared to watch out for the times when heuristics hurt more than they help. (For example, in one disability chat board I read regularly, some young people with mobility impairments speak of their annoyance when elderly people really glare at them or become otherwise hostile for occupying blue-badge spaces to which they are legally entitled--because they assume that young people cannot possibly need them the same way elderly people do). And we need to be more conscious of when heuristics can lead to inaccurate assumptions and perceptions (for example, now you will probably remember more quickly that a crutch or cane does not automatically mean an elderly hand is holding it!). Then when we catch these glitches, we confront them, think about how to avoid the same assumption in the future, or at least minimize the harm we create (for example by not being as quick to become hostile to someone we think aren't legitimate users of disability-oriented resources), and then we move on. Until the next glitch.

Excessive guilt-tripping only leads to paralysis and doesn't fix the actual problem. It also creates the artificial expectation that we could ever attain a perfectly "assumption-free" frame work.

This artificial expectation creates severe harm in two ways: one by provoking excessive guilt tripping (see the nice circular trap). And two, even more seriously for society at wide, I see too many people assume they have already attained a perfectly "100% open mind" (or a "360 degrees open mind"). They think this means they no longer need to watch out for their own biologically driven tendency to over-apply heuristics to people and no longer need to continuously challenge their own assumptions, prejudices (we all have 'em) and attitudes. So instead of making continual progress throughout their life span, they remain frozen at whatever stage of enlightenment they were at whenever they suddenly decided they had attained perfection.

If this means they're cool with gender and race issues but not with sexual orientation issues, then they never make progress in becoming more comfortable with people of a different sexual orientation. If they're cool with sexual orientation but not with disability then they never overcome their mistaken assumptions about people with disabilities. If these assumptions influence how they behave toward others, or how they vote on issues that matter to the target population, etc. (and usually, sooner or later, they do), then other people's lives are impacted by that. NOT simply by the underlying prejudice itself, but by the person's failure to even notice it, then confront it.

One Sick Mother said...

As a relatively young and not-looking-like-the-back-of-a-bus woman who uses a cane, I have to thank you for this post.

How many times have I been tempted to clock people with my pretty, paisley-patterned cane when they did the old comic-book double take?

I don't know either. But if I had a new neuron for every time it happened, I likely wouldn't need the cane anymore...


rickismom said...

Look, classifying people is something that we do as an aid to living. It helps us realize that some situations can be potentially dangerous, it helps us predict what type of help we might offer to someone. However, the key is that we not LOCK ourselves into these pre-concived ideas. Nor to denay humanity based on it. You did neither. You expected the norm. That is no crime. But it is a mind-oppener when we see that the "norm" is not what we expected.

FridaWrites said...

When I weigh about 20 lbs less, I'm young (mid 30s and look younger) and dare I say, fairly hot, especially in good work clothes rather than jeans and a T. But it's not what people anticipate and people seem taken aback by me.

On the other hand, some people recently have thought I am far older--I'm not sure if I've appeared to age so much in the past year or if they can't see me as young when I use wheels. In the past, people have generally thought I'm about 5-7 years younger and often won't believe my age. Just over a year ago an acquaintance my age looked really surprised when he carded me (he had to card everyone). Now people are asking if my kids are out of the house and grown.

That was rambly, sorry. But I don't think you did any harm. Statistically, anyone using a cane or assistive device is more likely to be older rather than younger. Prejudice would have been thinking badly of her or not recognizing that she's young and hot--a lot of people wouldn't be able to see the hotness because of disability. :)

And yeah, Andrea, we get glared at for taking blue badge places all the time. If someone's there long enough, they look kind of apologetic when my husband hauls the scooter out. But I had difficulty and needed the places before I had the scooter too. I've seen some folks a few decades older who practically jump out of their cars and run into stores. I try not to make judgments though I know there is a lot of parking abuse--we can almost never know with any individual person.