Once upon a time, I met a woman who didn’t like me. I thought she didn’t like me, at least. She never smiled at me, rarely spoke to me, and generally didn’t seem thrilled at my presence in our Sunday school class.
Obviously, she didn’t like me.
Obviously, there was something wrong with me for her to dislike me.
I racked my brain for what was wrong. Had I offended her? Was I too honest about my bipolar disorder? Was I too quiet or awkward or— too something, some defect without a name and therefore without a solution?
Years passed. I shrugged it off. There were other people in the church who did like me, despite this nameless defect, and I consoled myself with their friendship.
One year I had this woman’s child in my VBS pre-k small group. The woman (I’ll call her Anna) pulled me aside on the first morning. “Daniel” (not his real name) “is still wearing pullups. Usually he can make it to the bathroom, but I’ve packed extra ones in his bag.” She sighed. “We’re working on toilet training, but he’s been in the hospital so much with a catheter in . . .” Another sigh. “It’s hard.”
“Oh, and I’ll have to come by about ten o’clock to hook his G.I. tube to the medicine bag, let it run for about twenty minutes so he gets all the food in his system, and then come back and clean out the tube.”
Double oh my.
I had known that three of her four children had a rare disease. It was a frequent prayer request at church. I had known that they were often in the hospital, travelling to see specialists, and trying to find what the best treatment would be. I had known all this.
But at this moment, listening to her schedule, knowing that the family went through this routine multiple times a day, looking at the dark circles under her eyes, it struck me: She’s not unfriendly. She’s tired.
It wasn’t about me. It never was.
As it turned out, one of the other VBS leaders was a former nurse and Heather volunteered to hook Daniel’s G.I. tube up and clean it out afterward, so Anna could have a four hour break. The look of grateful delight on Anna’s face was almost painful to see. How could I have missed the obvious?
How? For starters, I was focused on myself and my problems.
I was so self-conscious about my mental illness that it became a filter by which I judged others’ behavior toward me. I interpreted any negative (or even neutral) behavior through this filter, and believed that I knew their motivations when I didn’t. Moreover, I had allowed this misinterpretation to influence my behavior and attitudes toward them.
I think most of us do this. We have some aspect of our identity that we are sensitive about. It could be anything from the trivial to the important aspects of our humanity. We believe that others judge us for these things.
Please hear me out. I am not saying that prejudice doesn’t exist. It does. Prejudice is real. People can be hateful, judgmental, arrogant, and intent on shoving others down to prove their own superiority. People may be judging us.
But not always.
People can be prejudiced and not realize it, and unintentionally hurt us with careless words, or they might be aware of their prejudiced nature and not care. When confronted, they might be stunned into silence or defend their behavior or tell us things like: “It was just a joke. Get over it!” “Here comes the P.C. police with their political correctness crap.” “What’s your problem? Everybody says that.”
Or they might apologize, and ask how they can make things right between us. That’s the best case scenario. (It’s probably also the hardest one because it requires work from both of us. Things like forgiveness and listening and grieving the past are difficult but worthwhile.)
All of these responses are possible when someone is truly prejudiced. But is the objectionable behavior really prejudice to begin with, or am I assuming it is?
In thinking about prejudice and stereotypes, I’ve realized that I need to be careful. Sometimes, what I see as negative behavior toward me might be a product of my perception, not a reflection of reality. I need to think first.
- Did they mean this in the way I interpreted it? What was their tone or body language during this incident?
- Is it really negative? Would another person interpret these words or behavior in a negative light? (This is a big one for me, because my mind can distort things; I usually ask my husband or mother how they interpret the issue.)
- Is there another possible reason for their behavior? (Even if I don’t know the person, can I think of other reasons for this person to behave this way?)
- And, if I know this person well (and not just “this type of person,” which is a stereotyping on my part), is this a pattern of behavior or is it out of character, possibly resulting from a bad day (or lack of sleep, or hormonal imbalance, or issues with medication, or other stressors)?
Sometimes, it really is prejudice against me.
And sometimes, it’s not about me at all.