A Useful Practice

I refuse to allow shallow information and stereotypes to rule my thinking and actions.  I have seen prejudice and racism do too much harm to the people I love.  I participate in cultural competency activities at work, in “RECONCILE” at church, in Restorative Listening sessions in the community, and I pray and I study. One of the practices that I have developed out of all of this is an exercise I do while I walk around downtown during my work day.

Whenever I see a person, I watch what my brain comes up with about that person based on their appearance and situation and then I do a complete 180. If I see a dirty homeless person, I allow my thoughts to go where they will and then I tell myself a story that is the opposite.  I tell myself that I am looking at an attorney who may have suffered a stroke.  If I see a bleached blonde with seemingly enhanced body parts, I let my mind wander to how I feel about disempowering images of women; but then I tell myself that she is an ordained minister.  If I see a shiny-shoed, diamond-sporting, pin-striped suit on a white gentleman, I tell myself some story about his vulnerability.  I am trying to combat shallow information and stereotypes.  I remember that each person I see is a person whom God persistently pursues to reconcile to himself and that my interaction with each one of them is part of this pursuit.  I do this so that when I look them in the eye they don’t see a prejudgment of themselves in the reflection.  I hope instead that they see a look that eagerly searches their eyes for a connection with my God.

I do this so often that it has become second nature to me.  One Friday night a couple weeks ago I was walking to the parking structure where I park my car.  There were two young Black men standing outside the doorway to the stairwell.  They were dressed in gang style.  This is one stereotype that is easy for me to resist because I have five Black grandchildren who often sport the gang style that is sold to children on TV and the radio.  I looked the young brothers in the eyes and said “Hello” and walked past them.  They folded in behind me very close and followed me up the stairs.  I turned and caught a look on one of their faces.  It said, “I am about to do something violent.” Everything happened in a split second.  I heard my husband’s voice in my head.  He said, “OH H—L NO!”  I turned and pushed through them with a loud “Excuse me!” and I was out on the street again.   I walked and walked, trying to process what had happened.

What happened was that my reality trumped theirs.  If I had walked into that situation with a mind controlled by stereotypes I would have been scared. The power that they were trying to exercise would have had its way.  Like a marble rolling downhill, I would have been controlled by my fear and I would have been a victim.  Instead there was a loud crash between how I chose to think of those kids and how they chose to think of themselves.  That crash was like a switch that turned on and gave me the energy and courage to push my way back out onto the street. I was not a victim that day, but more importantly, those beautiful young brothers did not get to be gangsters that day.  They had to look elsewhere for power.

I think I will continue my practice.  It is a useful practice.

4 Responses to “A Useful Practice”

  1. Ross Says:

    Karyn thanks for sharing. You bring up some great practical points that could have helped me in the past. I have allowed shallow judgments to incorrectly lead me to wrong conclusion. For example, I met this man on the street named Tom Sawyer. Some dirt, an unpleasant smell, and an absence of teeth caused me to draw some quick conclusions about Tom Sawyer. Later, I found out that Tom Sawyer was the lead tenor for his church choir. The man has a beautiful voice and beautiful smile despite his lack of teeth. God healed me through Tom Sawyer. He made me realize, I am still blind and deaf in the way I look at people.

    I love watching Jesus in the New Testament mess with social norms. You know . . . touching gentiles considered unclean, hanging out with sinners considered unworthy, and playing with children considered a nuisance. It’s as if Jesus is playing by a different set of rule. Oh wait, he is. He is playing by his Fathers rules. I love it! I want that. I want Him.

  2. Kelsi Johns Says:

    Wow that is powerful. Powerful first of all to even make the decision to fight the everyday thinking that perpetuates harmful stereotypes. I agree, when I allow myself to judge somebody and then am proven wrong once I get to know them or proven wrong simply by the grace of God convicting me, it is so liberating to realize that A) it is by no means my duty or prerogative to judge them or their character, and that by doing that I am bringing judgment on my self B) God created them and loves them as he loves all his creation and C) I am created to love that person and they are broken just as I am. Realizing these 3 things draws me to the “other”: to the imposing homeless person, to the shady character outside the parking garage. Seeing somebody through the eyes of Christ rather than through our own prideful, broken lens is redeeming to our relationship to humanity in general.

    I appreciate your powerful point that by you not feeding into those two young men’s stereotypes, you were empowering them. That is so true: when we see people for who they really are (“beautiful young brothers”) we then react to them in that light, and a different story unfolds between us and them. That is powerful.

  3. Paul Louis Metzger Says:

    Thank you for your important insights, Karyn. Your reflections and story remind me of Walter Wink’s work.

  4. len Says:

    Not directly related.. a project I started on Trinitarian leadership and then discovered Milan’s paper.. http://nextreformation.com/?p=2665

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