I used to play this game in my head on long car rides where I would imagine what was happening in the houses I was passing by. I would affix a short story to each one, imagining the life events the inhabitants were experiencing. I imagined couples fighting, babies crying, acceptance letters and disappointments. Eventually this moved to me realizing that the people in the other cars had their own personal worlds in each of them so I would stare at everyone and try to guess what their lives were like. What really grabbed me about this exercise was the fact that unless I met these people, I’ll never know about them or what their life is like. I couldn’t grasp the fact that we can all be here together yet remain so separate.
My family recently adopted a dog. He is a Jack Russell Terrier/Lab mix who just turned one. He is energetic and stubborn and loves chewing the heck out of everything. One of my family members told me recently that she actually believes the dog is, in some way, intellectually disabled. While I knew this wasn’t true I could see why she would think that way. Despite living in the same house she has chosen to not be as knowledgeable about dogs and their nature so they will continue to speak a different language until she does. She sees him as dumb because she doesn’t understand him.
That brings me back to that game I used to play. While that way of thinking helped me to appreciate that people lived different lives than me it also was a practice in stereotyping. I was making guesses based on what a person looked like and what I saw them doing. Since I had no way of knowing what was true, I internalized the judgments I had made. I was in my early teens at this time, 12 or 13, so I was familiar enough with how different races and types of people were thought of. I didn’t grow up sheltered but I also had not spent much time talking to people who weren’t White, like me.
Once I turned 16 I got a job working at an assisted living home close to New Haven. The residents ranged from Yale professors, mayors, businessmen, and Jean Harris, who became famous after murdering her lover, Herman Tarnower in the 80’s. Aside from it being my first time knowingly being around a murderer, it was also my first time working with Black people. It was my first job, and I went to a pretty diverse high school but as a shy kid I didn’t talk much to anyone outside of my one White best friend. However, I knew it said something about me that I was excited to meet the murderer and nervous about meeting my Black coworkers.
I didn’t know much about Black culture so this became my crash course. I wasn’t fearful or racist, I just didn’t know, so I was reserved. But I still held that sense of wonder when it came to strangers and it propelled me to embrace this opportunity to learn and grow. I confronted the stereotypes I held towards Black people and made great friends. I still kind of kept my distance from Mrs. Harris but mostly because she seemed very private, yet still kind and polite in our interactions.
Since then I’ve made it my task to identify my weak spots when it relates to other people and confront them. I had always assumed Asian people were pushy so I volunteered to mentor Japanese exchange students and work at a summer camp in Boston’s Chinatown district. I had always been fearful of hospitals and sick people, so I chose to go to graduate school for a degree that focused on helping sick children deal with the hospital experience. I felt like I didn’t have a clue about how to interact with people who are intellectually disabled, so I became a volunteer at the Special Olympics. I’ve worked with the homeless, AIDS patients, and teens. I don’t say all this to congratulate myself. Rather, I am presenting this as evidence that people can change if they want to and if they let love conquer hate. All you have to do is talk to people and listen.
While all of these experiences were happening I also learned about something else that opened up my world. I found an article about space, which was accompanied by a picture from NASA’s Hubble Space Telescope. In this picture was a multitude of bright spots and the article described this as the deepest view into space. To the human eye and a regular telescope this patch of sky seemed empty but with the help of Hubble, they found that nearly 10,000 galaxies resided there. This led me down a Space rabbit hole and I came across Carl Sagan and his quote, “The nitrogen in our DNA, the calcium in our teeth, the iron in our blood, the carbon in our apple pies were made in the interiors of collapsing stars. We are made of starstuff.”
This clicked into place the mind and the heart I was searching for within myself all this time.
So I am going to keep my eye trained on the dark spots, both within others, and myself because I know my education on the human species will never be complete. I urge you to think now about yourself and your own prejudices. Commit to yourself that starting now and into the New Year, you will confront a prejudice you currently hold. Extend kindness. Find the galaxies that live within each of us. Open your world.