African American comedian Wanda Sykes did a funny skit on TV one time using that tag line. She would read an actual news headline, shake her head and sigh, “Oh white people.”
I had an oh-white-people experience recently. (I’m white.) I had a lengthy phone conversation with someone I had not met. We talked about growing up in the South, and I shared some of my experience from the early days of school integration. We had further business to address, so at the end of our conversation, I asked her to send me her email address. When she did, it included a photo and I realized that she is Black.
What stunned me wasn’t so much what I had said since I would have shared the same reflections of growing up regardless. No, what stunned me was that I made an assumption. I assumed, in the absence of evidence to the contrary, that the person I was speaking with was white like me. Even more surprising to me was realizing how unconscious that assumption was. I didn’t even know I had made that assumption until confronted with the error. Wow.
It might seem harmless, but in making that assumption, I neglected to hold space that would have given the other person room to share her own experiences growing up in the South, experiences that likely would have been quite different than mine. My assumption closed the door to true listening and prevented genuine dialogue.
I felt embarrassed. That’s okay. I used it as an opportunity to reflect on what I saw as a powerful lesson. Apparently it’s a lesson I need to be reminded of … repeatedly.
When I was still fairly new to blogworld, a commenter on my blog mentioned that he was headed off to bed. Since I was enjoying my morning cup of tea, that caught my attention. Here is the exchange that followed.
Me: Oh, are you a night owl?
Him: No, I’m in Singapore.
Me: Are you traveling or working there?
Him: No, I’m Singaporean Chinese.
Me: I’m studying Chinese.
Him: I don’t really speak Chinese.
Me: Wow, you are a one person lesson in assumptions. Here are the mistaken ones I’ve already made about you. 1) I assumed all my readers are in the US so you must be, too. 2) I assumed if you are reading my blog from somewhere other than the US, you must still be an American. 3) I assumed if you are Singaporean Chinese, you must speak Chinese. I apologize, and thank you for this valuable lesson.
Assumptions. We all make them, regardless of whatever classifications we identify with, and regardless of our life experience. For example, I’m part of a multi-ethnic family, and I’ve traveled and lived overseas in other cultures. And still….
I don’t think it’s possible to eliminate all our assumptions. But if we can become more aware of them, by noticing the conscious ones and seeking out the unconscious ones, we can begin to question them and recognize the impact they have on our interactions. We can begin to see each other beyond our own filters and open the door to genuine communication.
Your assumptions are your windows on the world. Scrub them off every once in a while, or the light won’t come in. ~Isaac Asimov