They look just like me

Posted on June 11, 2010

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Despite being completely burnt out in school, I was genuinely sorry to see our legal issues class end last night, while I was desperately relieved. As far as sitting in a classroom goes, I think it’s been about the best use of my time in recent memory. As we closed the class, our Hispanic instructor, who also happens to be Assistant Dean of the Law School, gave some parting thoughts.

Married to a blond-haired, blue-eyed woman, his children are very Caucasian-looking. With tongue firmly in cheek, he told of picking up his son from soccer practice just as he’d finished mowing his lawn, and of the looks he got from parents, which seemed to communicate concern that the gardener was picking up that nice boy.

He also explained that he can go into Home Depot from the office, and he is greeted with “yes, sir” but he can be working around the house at home and go to the same store wearing sweats, and he is watched. Suspiciously. My African-American friend, who was seated in the same class, once told me that he went into Target wearing sweats and a hoodie in the wee hours of the night to get formula for his baby and he was watched. Suspiciously.

Given, besides Antarctica, I may possibly live in the whitest place on earth, … but suspicion?

This is not, contrary to your impression, a post about race. And that’s what I’m talking about. Impression. I take full advantage of the fact that people decide important things based on their first impression. If I need that impression, I dress to the nines, sling on the pearls, and sit up straight, because for some reason pomp, pearls, and posture communicate intelligence and competence. I need that impression less and less, and have no problem being seen in the clothes I wore two days ago, the sleep spot still mashed in the back of my hair, and thoroughly, frighteningly, makeup-less.

I think about the transformation that occurs as I tease and paint in front of the mirror, how “the clothes make the [woman],” and it makes me look at others less inclined to tease and paint with different eyes. What’s going on behind that confidence, that arrogance, that shyness, that sweetness, that tatoo? How often am I “racial profiling” with my eyes? How often am I profiling, period?

A few days ago a friend of mine told of getting her mind wrapped around a situation so that she wouldn’t take offense. Her religious leader stopped to talk to her as he drove by her garden fence, and quipped that she was hard to find and must have been slacking the last bit of church. She didn’t know what to say. She had taken her older sister home and they had picked up their mother and gone to visit her father’s grave, to give themselves some time to deal with their brother’s mental breakdown and dissolving personality. It was heavy stuff, and reminded them of the breakdowns which had led to a suicide and a fatal heart attack just a few short years earlier. They’ve been shaking for awhile, barely holding on.

We’ve all been profiled before, and it hasn’t killed any of us. We all understand why people profile. It’s efficient, and a short-cut for the brain that alerts us to the appropriate way to behave in this or that situation. It’s efficient, it’s self-protective, and it’s often wrong. By the end of most days, I’m tired of talking. I have to talk a lot, and the more you have to talk, the more likely you’re going to say something dumb. By the end of the day, the last thing I want to do is take a chance offending, because I’ve done so more times than I can count. So I thoroughly understood a religious leader who has to talk all the time to everyone, not reading everyone’s minds and knowing the details, who instead follows a first impression, or “profiles.”

The point of this legal class has been to think through policy, judicial decisions, and legislation as thoroughly as possible, to determine the ramifications, the people it affects, the trends it sets, and the loopholes it creates. It’s been about playing the chess game in our heads before we ever move a piece. It’s been about being committed to equity, for everyone. That’s not pie-in-the-sky idealism; that’s darned hard mental work. It’s made me hypersensitive about ramifications and effects and trends in my own life, and the frank impossibility of controlling all the effects. And I’m kind of exhausted. Hence the relief that something I’ve loved is over.

I don’t know if I’ll ever be able to completely overcome a tendency to rely on first impression. I hope the “profiles” I use to identify people are built with enough facets to embrace every dignity. Because, in the end, despite the first impression, all the “theys” look just like me.

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