It’s easy to make assumptions about people. I do it all the time and you probably do too.
We All Make Assumptions
Assumptions help you make short-hand sense of the world. You expect people in a certain place to look and dress a certain way. And when that’s not the way they look, you make assumptions that are sometimes just flat out wrong.
If you’ve been reading this blog for a while, you know that my husband and I are friends with Clemetin Allen. Clemetin’s life has had a very different trajectory than ours. He grew up in a poor neighborhood and from early on had problems. Those problems lead one after another to a life full of challenges.
If you were to see Clemetin, you might be charmed, as we are, by his bright smile and friendly face and remarkable insight and resilience. But first you’d have to get past his dark skin, his missing tooth and his colorful language. Chances are good, you’d make an incorrect assumption or a whole host of them.
And that’s what happened recently.
Incorrect Assumptions Are Hurtful
Last fall, I purchased a guest membership for Clemetin to the New York Botanical Gardens which is quite near his apartment. I thought that he would enjoy the opportunity visit and walk around the beautiful grounds. I believed that he would be able to escape there from the constant anxiety of being harassed by the police — a situation he encounters with some frequency in public parks.
He was grateful and told me that he went several times and had enjoyed it.
But last week, I got a call from the membership department at the Botanical Gardens, telling me that there was a problem with my guest membership. The membership card had been stolen and was being used by someone else. They had cancelled the card.
You can guess what had happened.
The security people and the membership department had made an assumption that someone like Clemetin wouldn’t have a guest membership at their Gardens.
The person who called me told me that they had a photo of the suspect. I asked her to send it to me. Of course, the picture in the photo was my friend Clemetin.
I thought he looked quite spiffy in his yellow shirt, white hat and sun glasses. But that’s clearly not what the Botanical Gardens people thought.
Instead of an attractive man looking forward to a walk in the gardens, they saw a black man who was missing a tooth and looked somehow threatening. They saw someone who didn’t look like the people who usually frequent the Gardens.
And they couldn’t imagine how or why he had a gift membership.
I understand their mistake. Perhaps no one else has ever given a Botanical Garden gift membership to someone who looks like Clemetin before. But the assumptions they made were extreme. In their eyes, Clemetin wasn’t a guest to be treated with respect — he was someone who had stolen a gift card.
It turns out that Clemetin is as much at risk going to the Botanical Gardens as he is sitting on a public park bench!
Try to Question Your Assumptions
Assumptions are natural. They are easy to make. But see what happens this week when you question them. When you see someone who looks different than you do, notice the assumptions you are making and ask yourself if you might be just plain wrong.
Go a step farther. Rather than shrinking back or walking another way, reaction in the opposite manner. Catch that person’s eye and say hello. See what happens. Note how you feel.
Share your ideas in the comments below. Or, head on over to Facebook and share your ideas there.