When I was in college, I spent two years as an orientation leader. I was one of the people on the welcoming committee. My job involved greeting new students and their families, giving campus tours, leading group activities, and guiding students through the registration process and the intricacies of the university system. Part of the training for this position involved taking a class, a sort of leadership development course, if you will.
I remember an activity we did in my class one day involving perceptions. The director had invited someone he knew to volunteer as the subject for inspection. We were supposed to look at her and answer questions such as, “How old is she?” “Where was she born?” “What’s her favorite color? Her favorite food?” “What kind of car does she drive? OR does she drive at all?” “What does she do for a living?” We were supposed to decipher this lady simply by looking at her, without knowing anything other than her name.
I glanced at her — an average sized woman, about 150 lbs. with short brown hair, glasses, and blue eyes. She wore simple clothing and dark brown shoes. She appeared to look friendly but at the same time reserved. I assumed that she was introverted like me, that she drove a Volkswagen Beetle, and her favorite color is green. How I came upon this information I don’t know. Turns out, she did not drive — she took the bus — her favorite color was yellow, and she grew up in California, not Oregon like I thought.
That one 15 minute exercise left a lasting impression on me, because it taught me the power of perceptions, and how wrong it can be in the world of perceptions. We, as humans, have innate assumption capabilities. We see someone and without knowing much about them, create an image in our minds as to what that person is like. How often do you walk with a friend on the sidewalk, see somebody and immediately turn to your friend and say, “That girl is so trashy,” or “That guy looks like he hasn’t showered in weeks!” without really knowing how often the guy showers or how many inches above the knee is considered “trashy.” (It’s all relative).
Another incident that left a lasting impression on me and gave me a sense of how wrong my perceptions were happened on a weekend retreat with my fellow Orientation team members. Away at a camp in the woods, we slept in bunks and engaged in the mundane activities of getting to know each other and eating in a cafeteria-style dining hall. On the second day of the retreat, we engaged in a group activity that were designed to build trust and improve our teamwork.
Since certain members of my team had already developed a certain connection to each other prior to the retreat, they paired up easily. I, on the other hand, didn’t have anybody in particular that I connected with. I was fine with being randomly matched. I just didn’t want to be the last to be matched. And that’s exactly what happened. After everyone paired up, I was left with my partner — a Middle Eastern guy named Saaed. Outwardly, he appeared dark, which as I think about it now makes me laugh, because of course he’s dark! He was very tan, alright. He looked very similar to other individuals who came from the Middle East. He had a skinny build, black hair & brown eyes. In theory, he wasn’t so much different from me — I also have black hair & brown eyes complete with a skinny frame — except for our gender differences and our ethnicity.
Our activity was to walk across a rope anchored 50 ft. in the air from one tree to another, approximately 10 ft. across. As I stood there and watched my teammates walk across, my heart started beating faster and louder. My anxiety grew and grew. I was deathly afraid of heights, and I didn’t want to make it obvious YET. When it was our turn, Saaed held my hand and we walked slowly across the rope. The whole time, I kept apologizing and was almost in tears. I felt like such a wimp. He understood that I have a fear of heights and assured me that we could go as slowly as I wanted. He was very patient as I kept going at the speed of a turtle and apologizing for being such a lousy partner.
It’s safe to say that he was the best partner in a group activity that I’ve ever had.
That experience taught me cultural humility and acceptance. I accepted the fact that there was a small part of me that wasn’t completely knowledgeable about the world and its people yet. For the first ten years of my life, I lived amongst people who looked exactly me, who had the same eyes, the same skin color, the same hair and the preconceived notion that all Americans were blonde haired and blue eyed. Then I immigrated to America, and was astounded to find that most Americans are NOT blonde haired or blue eyed (most have brown hair), and that America is a melting pot of cultures. I saw people I had never seen before in my life!
That’s the beauty of America. Sadly, given the current turmoil it does not feel as if we are a country of cohesiveness. It feels like we are a divided country. To make things even more heated, the recent end of DACA puts us, America, in the spotlight for negative perceptions from the around the world.
People have certainly gone crazy, I think, and things have exacerbated to the point of colonial times. We seemed to have forgotten that there is no such thing as a true “white” race — we all come from other countries at some point. Whether it’s our great grandparents or our parents, however many generations ago, no one seems to truly be recognizing that if it weren’t for the dream of a better life, our great-great-grandparents would not have left their countries for a different one, hoping to fulfill the dreams of their subsequent generations. And we would not be where we are today, a country with the freedom of speech, freedom of religion, and freedom to choose.
I sympathize for all those who are not able to continue the American dream simply because they are in the wrong place at the wrong time. I sincerely hope that we can all recognize cultural humility and accept things we cannot change, that perceptions are simply what is on the outside, and not what is on the inside.