A few weeks ago, I brought my teen daughter and 3 of her friends to the YMCA for a night of swimming. I crammed them and all of their floaties into my little Prius and we took off. They’re a loud bunch and, I’m happy to say, a really diverse bunch. It was a fun ride to the Y, with lots of laughter and yes, lots of inappropriate teenage language (I try to remember what it was like at that age!).
When we entered the Y, I found myself in a situation that I wasn’t sure how to respond to. My daughter and I have a very common Minnesotan heritage; we are German/Norwegian/Scandanavian. But her friends that were with her that night were Somali, African-American and Mexican-American. As I approached the desk to get them pool passes, the first question I was asked was “Are you from a group home?” The girls snickered. I’ll be honest, I didn’t know what to say except “no.” The look on my face must have conveyed my confusion, as the desk worker quickly back-pedaled and explained that she was just asking the question to see if we get a discount.
I let the girls go into the pool and, as I went to run an errand, I started thinking. Was this a common question asked of ALL guests, or was it a well-intentioned but unfortunate bad assumption that because of our looks and behavior and age, that chances were these were girls from a local group home? Either way, it made my girls feel uncomfortable and singled out. It made me feel mad that they had to even experience a moment of that.
But, it also got me thinking. How easy is it for us to take a glance at someone and put them in a certain category without ever getting to know the person? I understand that even unconsciously, we do that. Our mind wants to categorize the world around us and in order to help us sort through the constant barrage of info, it will automatically make that leap. A red sign on a corner, it must be a stop sign. A barking dog, it’s probably angry and shouldn’t be approached. But people aren’t that easy. We can’t be lumped into neat little categories based on the way we look.
How many times in my life, had I taken a glance at someone and labeled them? There’s that nice-dressed family that sits in church each week that one might think must have it all, but are actually on the verge of losing their home and marriage. Or, assuming that guy in dirty rags and a beard in the park must be homeless but he’s really a master gardener. Or, wondering if that purple-haired young man wearing make-up and heels is a disappointment to his family, while he is actually an honor roll student and the apple of his parents’ eyes. Good or bad, we all make conclusions based on nothing factual, only our presumptions.
So, how do we avoid it? I’ve learned it’s as simple and as complicated as having conversations. Getting to know people and getting to know their stories is the best way. Take the time to really explore the lives that aren’t normally in your comfort zone. I guarantee you’ll find they’re more like you than you thought. And the more you do it, the more your eyes will be opened to the beauty of everyone around us. What a rich and diverse world and state and city we live in. I find that the more I experience it, the more I love it and crave it. It enriches my life.
As for the Y, the Community Director did return my call regarding the situation and assured me that is it not common practice to ask a group of individuals entering the building if they are with a group home. He offered a sincere apology and a promise to go over some more diversity training with his staff, most of whom are new to the job and just learning the ropes.