(Sorry for the long time between postings I have dibbing and dabbing at this one when time allowed, so it took forever…)

One of the benefits of some conferences is the opportunity to attend sessions that provide for personal growth or evaluation. This has been true at least for the software process and technical writing conferences I have attended. (It is not so much true for the molecular pathology conferences I have attended – those dorks are too busy talking to each other about ways to use genetic research to cure disease.)

At the software conference I went to last week, I had the opportunity to go to a talk by Linda Rising entitled Who Do You Trust? Beware of Your Brain. The session consisted of information about sociological and psychological studies that demonstrated that our brains appear to be hardwired for prejudice and that we filter input based on those prejudices. It was good to be reminded of this – especially as I grow increasingly intolerant of some people I work with and people who text message while driving. And people who use “text message” as a verb.

Dr. Rising talked about experiments with humans and other primates that demonstrate we are prone to violent prejudice. She also talked about studies that demonstrated teamwork might be the way out of that prejudice. As she was elucidating her point in a clear and entertaining way, I was thinking of my friend Brett.

To put Brett in context, and the impact he had on my life and my way of thinking, I am going to drag out the big ol’ ugly stinking past. This next part is to describe “where I am coming from” – my particular chip on my particular shoulder which affects how I think about people – my filters. Here goes…

My Pain Garbage Piles – a sampling of the worst:

1. Hillary and Jennifer – I was skinny as a child, but never small. I have this huge round face, and my bones are big (they really are – the doctor told me so!). Short of my hair, nothing about me can be described as “fine” or “delicate”. Early in my school life, two girls dictated that being small was the beauty standard and being not small made someone not worthy of their friendship. Why did I care? Why did they get to dictate that? Why did it cause me so much pain? I don’t know. Being away from first grade so long it is hard to remember, but it stuck with me and I can recall that feeling of pain when my excessive height and big hands were pointed out by them.

2. Shoulder Pads – This one is by far the stinkiest. Before I knew better, I used to wear shoulder pads and in high school I had this flowered shirt that I got from The Limited that had shoulder pads. One day in Math Analytics class, the jokester of the popular kids (I am sure you know the type) came up and punched me in the boob and then the shoulder and said “Your shoulders are as big as your boobs.” Ugh… blech…grrrr. I think this experience put deep grooves in my brain because the worse part is the teacher saw all this happen, I caught his eye, and he looked away and didn’t say anything, didn’t do anything. At that moment, I “knew” the “truth”.

3. Cancun – In a moment of pure insanity, I decided to go to Cancun for Spring Break with my friend. I got horribly sunburned the first day and spent the rest of the week in pain and watching really attractive people party ’til they couldn’t see straight. One night at a bar my friend and I were pointed out by a young man who said “Who invited the fat girls?” Ugh… blech… grrr.

Ok… I am going to stop there… that is probably enough. Dwelling on all of that does no good… but hopefully it puts some context into the revelations I am going to make about myself.

It was very important to my parents that I do not develop prejudice against any racial, ethnic, or religious group. My parents are careful with their language and their message, and because of that I think I am able to treat all people equally. Except for attractive people.

I instinctively distrust attractive people. A lot of painful experiences are associated with attractive people pointing out that I am not attractive and am worth less because of that.
So these are the imprints in my brain that I am working against:

1. I am not attractive.
2. Attractive people, especially attractive women, have an easier life than me. They get special favors and treatment because they are attractive.
3. Attractive people are mean to people who are not attractive.
4. People assume my opinions and work are not as worthy as that of attractive people. I have to work harder to prove myself.
5. The worst type of unattractiveness is being fat.
6. I have to protect and take care of myself, because no one else will.
7. Attractive people do not have good personalities because they don’t need to.

I try to be an analytical, clear-thinking person, but it is hard for me to see any of the above as the BS that it is because of the prejudices I developed early and often. And then I met Brett.

The first time I met Brett was when we had a get-together in the company cafeteria to welcome him to the tech writing community. When I got down there to meet him I thought “Oh, great, another good looking tech writer. Just what we need.” (At the time we were having a particularly strong rash of attractive tech writers coming into the company.)

And then Brett behaved in a way that did not fit any of the patterns in my brain. He was nice. To everybody. Even the FAT ONES! There was an older woman, Gayle, who asked him what his middle name was. (Gayle was the queen of the akward nonsequitor.) When Brett responded “Christopher” she said, “What a horrible name for a boy – it is too feminine.” (To explain the wonder that is Gayle would take a whole other post.) Brett smiled kindly and said, “You are right. It is pretty feminine.”

I was disarmed. It was not the response I was expecting – I was thinking more of a frat boy snort and shrug – or a fake gay voice that straight guys sometimes do (the MOST annoying sound on the face of the earth)… anything but treating Gayle like a person and being nice.

And every interaction I had with Brett from that moment on did wonders to scrub my brain of the attractive people prejudice. Brett fit into every group I saw as evil – attractive (he looks like an attractive version of John Edwards), athletic, and in a fraternity.

Brett and I became pretty good friends – we even were in a band together. It ended up we have similar values, opinions, taste in music. And I was continually blown away by his constant kindness, equanimity, sense of humor, and intelligence.

In a fundamental way I am different now because of Brett. I have scads of attractive friends. From the hot knitting girls to the trainer who kicks my butt every Tuesday and Thursday, I can point to at least a dozen people who are attractive and kind and smart.

I still have my moments though, I feel less comfortable working with attractive people at work. And if someone isn’t fair or kind to me, I assume it is because I am unattractive. And I still REALLY, REALLY hate when guys talk to me like I am another guy because the don’t put me in the category of shaggable. (Just because I don’t have a cute butt doesn’t mean I want to hear about another girls’ cute butt – IN FACT THE OPPOSITE.)

But every day in every way I am trying to become a more tolerant, kind, less judgemental person, and along that path, here are some resources (for lack of a better word) that help me on that path. And thanks to Dr. Rising I have some new resources. Check them out if you want to work on your own prejudices:

1. My mom told me over and over and over again when I was a kid and being too judgemental “Everybody is doing the best they can for the situation they are in.” It is a good one to remember – it always softens my heart when I think about it.

2. “Not a Pretty Girl” and “32 Flavors” by Ani DiFranco. Hard to explain why they help – except to say singing along with them at the top of my lungs releases anger I feel from real or imagined prejudice – makes me feel like a whole, worthy person again so that I can treat others that way.

3. Hairspray – the original and the remake.

4. A good rule of thumb is to tell a pretty woman she is smart and a smart woman she is pretty. It sounds pandering and stupid, but it is the thing that is least obvious about a person that they probably most want to be appreciated for. My whole life I craved to be told I was beautiful. (See related post.)

And here are the experiments into sociology and prejudice that Dr. Rising talked about:

5. Robber’s Cave Experiment

6. Blue-eyes vs. Brown experiment featured on Frontline


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