When my son was a baby, there was a woman in my Mommy/Baby group whose daughter was tiny. Her (white) doctor told her to butter all of her daughter’s food so that she would gain weight, since she was below the low end of the charts for normal weight for babies. The thing is, the mom and dad were both of Asian descent, and were small adults. The scale of “normal” was made for white people of northern European descent. Her baby was totally normal for who she was, and didn’t need any extra butter in her diet.
Being off the scale in the other direction causes problems too. I knew a (black) child who was much larger than other kids his age. Everyone thought he was much older than he was, and assumed he must be slow or stupid or immature. But we expect much different behavior from a 5 year old than from an 8 year old! If a 5 year old looks like he’s 8, we treat him differently and expect different things from him. He was always feeling inadequate and being treated as stupid, just because he was big for his age.
It’s so easy to assume that our own experience is “The Norm.” For example, I’ve only been pulled over by the police twice, and both times it was for something wrong with my car (a light out next to my license plate; tail lights that weren’t hooked up after brake work). So it’s easy to assume that most people don’t get pulled over very often. But some people get pulled over a lot. Is it because they are bad drivers? It’s easy for me to assume that, but it’s not necessarily true. I’ve taked to people who get pulled over for “driving while Black.” Not for speeding, or getting into accidents, or for missing brake lights, but for their skin color.
We teach our children in Kindergarten to have empathy for other people. Just because it doesn’t hurt you to bite your friend, doesn’t mean your friend likes getting bitten. It hurts physically and emotionally to get bitten, doesn’t it? Does that mean we need to bite every kid to show them how it feels? Probably not the best solution. Better to teach kids to understand that other people feel things that we don’t feel – and that they don’t feel what we feel – and that we need to listen to each other to find out what is going on inside another person.
When we don’t learn that very well, we start making harmful assumptions. If I only got pulled over twice in 30 years of driving, and this other person got pulled over ten times this year, that must mean she’s a bad driver, right? Not necessarily. But we need to listen to the people who say they have a different experience than we do, and believe them.
Likewise, a rich white person who assumes that they are the norm, and that everyone starts from a place of power and comfort, can only assume that if someone is poor and miserable then they did something to deserve that. They made poor decisions or were somehow bad people. After all, aren’t I doing okay? And isn’t everyone just like me?
It takes imagination to picture yourself in someone else’s shoes. It takes reading books about other people’s experiences, and watching movies, and seeing art, and talking to other people. It means knowing other people! Mixing with people of different backgrounds and heritages, and really listening to them. It means giving up one’s own certainty that we know how things really are, to hear how they are for someone else.
My son has a book called “The Only One Club.” The child in the book is the only Jewish kid in the whole class, and feels isolated and weird. The whole class figures out, over time, that every kid has something about them that only they have – the only one with all his adult teeth, the only one with divorced parents, the only one with a twin, etc. I like this book because it normalizes being not part of the norm.
It is so much easier for the people on the outside to see the differences. The poor person says hey, it’s not so easy for me to get child care, or afford college. The black person says hey, I get pulled over a lot more than whites do. The gay person says hey, I can’t marry the person I love. The people who are rich, and white, and straight, and Christian, don’t see how they skew everything until it’s pointed out to them. Heck, even white women aren’t seen as the norm – medical research on things like heart attacks is mostly done on men, so women’s symptoms aren’t always recognized. The people doing the research assume the norm is who they are, and don’t always account for the differences between people.
This is one reason representation is so very important. When the people running the government, and Hollywood, and the police, and the schools, and the doctors, all look the same, they tend to assume they are the norm and anyone outside the norm is bad. But what if they’re just small, or big, or female, or dark, or light, or whatever, and that’s normal for them? When there’s more representation, more norms are seen, and more norms are tolerated and understood, and more people are accepted as who they are. This is why I saw Black Panther on opening weekend – I’m white, but I want to see black super heroes. I want to see Asian, and Hispanic, and African, and European, and Pacific Islander, and Native American super heroes. I want to see Jewish, and Muslim, and Christian, and Atheist, and Agnostic, and Buddhist, and Hindu people in government, schools, hospitals, police, and movies. I want people to see that there is no one thing that is NORMAL.
There are still ways I don’t see how I skew things to fit myself. I feel embarrassed and stupid when I see how I contribute to keeping the status quo. I’m not saying it will be easy to convince those in charge that they are wrong or unfair. It is difficult for anyone to admit they are wrong, and even more so for people with fragile or inflated egos. I think though that the more visible all the differences are, the more we see #metoo and #blacklivesmatter, the more our culture will expand to allow for all of us. Doctors will learn different heart attack symptoms, and stop telling Asian moms to butter all their baby’s food. Police will stop focusing on skin color when more skin colors are represented on the force. Women will be accepted into traditionally male jobs when we see women in the movies doing all these jobs. We can elect non-Christian officials and not see our country eaten up in the flames of Hell. The more it happens, the more it can happen, and the better all our lives become.