In the blink of an eye

Pulling out of the driveway to take Cierra to her ‘job,’ she said: “I did something last week at the nursing home that is still bothering me.” Not old enough to have a paying job, Cierra has been volunteering this summer at the senior center a few blocks from our home. She plays games, does arts and crafts with residents and retrieves food trays. And, most days, she has a blast. She loves getting to know the different personalities of the women and men that live there. Her favorite is a woman that has a wide-ranging swearing vocabulary. Listening to Hilda swear delights Cierra no end!

As we made our way to the center, Cierra shared how she had mistakenly thought that one of the residents was a man. She wasn’t. Cierra was mortified that she had made this mistake, in part because she is a sensitive fourteen year-old and, in part, because she has often been mistaken for a guy and, worse, teased for her hairstyle and dress as being too masculine. So, I could see why this innocent mistake bothered her. She began to give the reasons why she had made the determination that this person was male: 1) She was tall and thin, with no visible curves, 2) She had really short, straight hair, 3) she had on a plain white tee with pajama-type pants, 4) the way she was laying down on the bed. Okay, I’m not sure about the fourth reason, but she had clearly given this a lot of thought.

As we continued to talk, I shared that what she had done was a normal process; everybody makes hundreds, if not thousands, of judgment calls daily about people and situations based on ‘cues’ that our minds take in. Lanky build, short hair, unadorned white tee equaled man, not woman. Culture and our personal experiences teach us what is normal, what is to be expected. And most often these are rapid-fire decisions that we aren’t even aware that we are making. In 2005, Malcolm Gladwell wrote a controversial book, Blink: The Power of Thinking Without Thinking, in which he explores this process. Gladwell contends that anytime we meet a new person or are confronted with a new situation or an urgent decision, our minds take about two seconds to come to a set of conclusions. Typically, we refer to this two-second decision-making as first impressions. Gladwell doesn’t argue that blinking is a negative thing, just that we should be more aware of the power of quick decision-making and the underlying assumptions that go with it. Striving to understand what’s going on when we are called upon to make quick decisions, will help us avoid false judgments. Blinking is often a good thing, as we call on the assumptions we have learned based on our experiences (e.g. you see a blue flame on the stove, you immediately know not to touch it). But blinking can also have deleterious effects and leads to many of the isms of our culture. The stereotypical assumptions we hold, often without being aware of them, lead us to make quick sexist, racist conclusions.  Naming the assumptions is a first step in learning to avoid those conclusions.

I am glad that in many settings, we can have conversations where we can talk openly about gender, race/ethnicity and sexuality; subjects that used to be taboo. I long, though, for each teen to have a warm and supportive community that encourages each one to fully live in who they are, not some prescribed notion of who she (he) ought to be.