I was on my way to meet a friend for a walk out near Mount Work a couple weeks ago when I ran into some roadwork. As I drove toward the flagger—a woman in her 20s, her golden hair streaming from under her pink helmet—I was shocked to hear my first thought:
A thousand tiny messages in those two words.
I’m used to this. I still witness myself making all sorts of snap judgments and hear myself saying things that echo the beliefs I’ve picked up and discarded along the years. Judgment and labeling are still my first instinct. It’s natural: we are products of the conditions in which we were socialized growing up. And I was socialized to hold the same bias against girls and women that my male peers were (and not one of us could taste the arsenic as we were drinking it). Even as we have evolved into more equitable and measured beings, the things we used to say and the ways we used to think are still encoded in our neural circuitry, whether we want them to be or not.
On top of that, as humans, our brains are wired for stereotyping. It’s an efficiency holdover from our early days as hominids: There’s one of those big hairy things with gigantic teeth. The last one I saw tackled Thag and ate him for dinner. Big hairy things with gigantic teeth are bad.
We’re wired to stereotype, to judge, to assume. My work now, as it is for all behaviours I want to extinguish, is to spot these thoughts when they arise, reconfigure the thought like twisting a pipe cleaner into a different shape, and send it back out through the network so that, with repetition and time, those biased thoughts are not the first things that jump to mind. It’s work that I see other people doing now, too.
As I rolled past the flagger, my mind already starting in on the work of re-encoding my original disrespectful slur, my eyes fell on the men who made up the work crew—a bunch of dudes of varying ages in hard hats and orange vests, probably all pleased that it was Friday afternoon and they’d be heading into the weekend in a couple more hours, once the light died. Everybody just doing their job.
My thoughts turned back to the woman holding the stop sign. What is that work like for you? How do you feel, being the only woman on a work crew of men? Is it enjoyable, or are you faced with tricky situations all through your day?
I drove on, my mind busying itself with thoughts, assumptions, memories. It’s incredible how quickly we can braid together a line of thinking using scraps of old material that would encircle the city if we were to lay them out end to end. The questions I wanted to ask her—that I wanted to know the answers to, from her experience and perspective, especially working in manual labour—were illuminating:
Do you laugh it off when one of them says those overalls look better on you than they do on any of the guys?
Do you look for ways to help a man save face when saying no or drawing your boundaries, so you don’t get passed over or prevented from advancing?
Do you hold back from offering a solution to a problem because, while they might nod, nobody really ever implements your suggestions?
And the kicker: Do any of them see you as a person?
Source: Mika Baumeister, Unsplash
This led me to thinking about the objectification of women—something I (we) are deeply familiar with. But right on the heels of that was the realization that my thinking was lumping all men into the same category, and blaming them for being male (how quickly down the rabbit hole we go) instead of recognizing that everyone is a product of their conditioning, and the only place people can start is where they are now—and only if they are awake.
And underneath it all—this whole galaxy of meaning-making taking all of 15 seconds as I drove through and past the construction crew—was the realization that all of us, unless we are taught otherwise, depersonalize and objectify all other people in one way or other. It’s easier and faster to get through life and get what you want when you don’t have to pay attention to the fact that there’s a human on the other end of the transaction—someone who has a penchant for mystery novels and a mole that worries her and no off switch for Pocky and sore feet at the end of the day. We decline at Thrifty when, at the end of our check-out, we’re asked if we’d like to contribute two dollars to the food bank. We say some homeless guy when we’re recounting a story instead of saying someone who’s got no place to live. We say the handicap spot instead of accessible parking. We say that’s retarded.
We say Hey Blondie.
Don’t beat yourself up over it. This is the way things are, right now, where you stand. Don’t say I’m such an asshole, don’t judge yourself, don’t even let guilt creep in for the way you’ve acted in the past. Just accept.
Accept that right now, your thoughts are like this.
And, starting now, you can make them into something so much more balanced.
About Alexandra Van Tol
A multi-published author and well being educator, Alex Van Tol convenes vision boarding sessions where participants gain clarity on their life and career path. Learn more at takemygoat.com
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