Goth Girls and Cowboys

Posted: May 21, 2012 in Relationships
Tags: , ,

Picture two high school girls sitting in Spanish class. One girl I’ll call “norm girl.” From the outside, she represented a normal high school girl, not too rich, not too poor, overall friendly and well liked. The second girl was “goth girl” she usually wore all black and smiled very little. She came halfway through the year and didn’t know anybody, and the look on her face said she did not want to know anybody. These girls, virtual strangers, were partnered together in class to practice Spanish. The exercise was to describe the other person using Spanish words. The goth girl described the other as having brown hair. The normal girl didn’t know many Spanish words and goth girl had already taken the easy descriptor of “brown hair.” So norm girl described goth girl as “simpatico.” She did not personally have any knowledge that the goth girl was “simpatico,” or “nice,” but she figured she could not go wrong with that descriptor. She certainly did not want to get goth girl on her bad side. Surprisingly, goth girl grew a smile from ear to ear that norm girl never knew she possessed. In fact, from then on goth girl seemed to acknowledge norm girl in a “simpatico” way.

Here is one case in which a new level of understanding trumped prejudice, or preconceived notions about a person. How does this happen? And how can we make it happen more often?

Lately, I’ve been interested in bridging gaps between disparate groups of people. I have become more and more aware of those in our society who are at at unfair societal bias: racial minorities, women, children, the elderly, even perhaps introverts or people with big noses.

I have experience in only one of the aforementioned categories, so I’ll admit, my knowledge is limited. However, if we were honest we’d all concede that there are things about each of us which cause us to have an unfair advantage or disadvantage at one time or another. In fact, there are several factors which tend to thrust us into one category or another– superficial categories that make no sense and serve no purpose.

Since we all experience certain biases directed toward us and, at times, emanating from us, here are some questions can we ask ourselves in an effort to curb the tide of discrimination.

What assumptions am I making about this person that may or may not be true? Here are some examples of assumptions. We know that assumptions can be positive or negative, but they often exist while we remain unaware.

– Assuming that a man is the primary breadwinner of the home.
– Assuming that an overweight person is undisciplined.
– Assuming that a conservative is closed minded and bigoted.

2. In what ways am I blind or unsympathetic to the challenges this particular person or group may face? As human beings, we must acknowledge that we have blind spots, lapses in judgement, or a limited understanding of the full picture. Here are some examples of an inherent lack of empathy.

– A man may underestimate the difficulties a woman faces in the corporate world.
– A very attractive person may underestimate the difficulties of someone with a more humble appearance.
– A middle class person may lack empathy for someone who is on the street.

3. In what way(s) can I communicate to this individual that I desire to bridge the gap of normal, everyday prejudice?

You see, we become so accustomed to one type of prejudice or another, that we are surprised when we find proof that the normal dose of it is absent. There are overweight people who expect skinny people to avoid them. There are poor people that do not anticipate rich people to seek their friendships. There are women who do not expect a man to treat them as a true peer. Goth girl, for example, had an expectation that she would either be rejected or not fully accepted by anyone, let alone norm girl.

In order to change our current societal norms, we need to make a conscious effort to go out of our way to defy them. We cannot do this in a superficial way. I’m not saying we should go seek out friendships with people who are minorities just so we can feel we are morally superior. By contrast, we must be aware of the biases that we already hold and then make a sincere effort to intentionally self-correct.

I grew up in Los Angeles where there was a large minority population and I was fairly used to it, so I thought I had very little problem with diversity. When I moved to Missouri, I had to figure out a strange new diverse population… The world of cowboys. The first time I saw a real belt-buckled, ten-gallon hat wearing cowboy, I had to do a double take. I thought they only existed in the movies, certainly not in a public high school! I had no idea what it was like to live the cowboy lifestyle, nor had I any interest or empathy for the life of a cowboy or cowgirl.

By the time I got to college, a surprising thing happened to me. A real live cowboy reached out to me. I was at a formal dance by myself. I don’t even remember if I was dating anyone at the time, but my relationships had been complicated. All I was interested in was having a nice time. I was tired of the complications of guys expecting more from me or the weight of a heavy relationship. I just wanted a little respect and to be treated like a lady. At a more immature state of my life, I may have rejected a dance with this cowboy, but in this instance, I bravely decided to give it a try. Me, a city girl who was inspired by graffiti art and smog sunsets with a young man who found all his inspiration in the midst of cow patties and horse tails. He danced with me in such a gentlemanly way that I was not expecting. He conversed with me and gave me an opportunity to understand his perspective, a perspective which I had not shared. It was a perspective about his view of the world and how it fit perfectly with the life of a cowboy. It was fascinating. That evening, cowboys were no longer strange to me. I wasn’t about to get married to the guy, but I appreciated the way he chose to live his life.

You see, whether it’s goth girl and norm girl, city girl and cowboy, Chinese and African, or elderly and teenager, we all have the opportunity to respond to an open door. And we all have opportunities to open the door if we are looking for one. Hopefully these opportunities will not need to be forced upon us, as in a Spanish class. Hopefully we can learn to be mindful of them and extend our hands in small ways and perhaps surprise one another in the process.

What opportunities might you have to reach across societal norms?

  1. Al Phillips says:

    That was beautiful Leigh. I am real proud of you!

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