Originally delivered as a sermon at the United Unitarian & Universalist Society of Mukwonago, WI in March 2007
We are born with no biases.We are born with no stereotypes. But, we react to many experiences as we grow older, and in doing so, we shape a view of the world. In doing this, we develop our socialized selves.My friend Amena Johnson who has worked for many nonprofit groups in the Northeast states and with whom I have the pleasure to speak to groups at times refers to the end product of this socialization as the Lens of Identity. It is the filter we use to look at the world and ourselves, and many things influence the tint of that filter: people, events, and feelings to name a few.
Of course, socialization is not some big bad. It is what we expect from the children around us, from our companion animals, and what we long for when we move into new spaces in our lives.We know—at least in a practical sense—that we must come to terms with how we are going to live with the rest of the people in our shared spaces. Sometimes we have been socialized extremely well: we might naturally volunteer or we may have an innate desire to help others. For all of us, though, I submit that we have some aspects of our lives that color our actions and beliefs in ways that we are not terribly proud. This is where we want to be concerned today. I’m not talking about changing our outlooks right away because you cannot just take off the Lens of Identity that you have developed, painstakingly, in the rigorous training program of your life for all these years. But today we can discuss acknowledging our lenses, what we do because of our lenses, and perhaps we can develop some takeaways on how to make our lenses a little clearer and what to do about the things we will end up seeing.
Let’s start with stereotypes as we begin to look at our lenses.A stereotype, whether positive or negative, is an oversimplified generalization that appears in words or visuals about a certain type of person. If asked where they come from, the easy thing to do now is answer: they come from our socialization. Well, yes, but I’m thinking a little more specifically. There are four main categories that I believe have aided in the development of our stereotypes. The first is people we are close to and/or trust like our faith leaders, friends, parents, and teachers. The next is our environment such as religion, movies, books, schools, legal systems, and music. Third, we have events like abuse, discrimination, persecution, crime, death, and rewards. Finally, we have our feelings—those emotions that influence our view of ourselves and the world. These categories do not necessarily exist independent of each other. An event, for example, may result in a feeling.
The possible combinations of these things make our lenses vary greatly. But, that is not the only reason each person has a unique lens.Each of us receives different messages about ourselves and other groups of people, sometimes true and sometimes not. Some of us believe the messages we have heard and some of us don’t. Some of us are resigned to the fact that we have no control over the early influences in our lives and others revel in the fact that we can change our thoughts and feelings even though we cannot change our past influences or the people in our lives now.
So, each of us has a lens.Each of us has stereotypes. But, what can we do to change our thoughts and feelings, to make our lenses a littler clearer? There are many methods, but today I will talk about three steps and include a specific example as I discuss each one.
The first step is to understand the systems of oppressions that you are in. There are some more of those buzz words. We heard that a stereotype is a simplified generalization. I slipped in discrimination before, and that is when someone takes action on a person-to-person level based not on merit but on what one person believes the other person to represent.Then there’s being prejudiced, which is what someone is when he or she holds a stereotype. Now, what are these systems of oppression? They are institutionalized beliefs that we did not create but that we exist within that have identifiable power groups and identifiable oppressed groups. Quickly, there is no hierarchy of oppression. By this I mean that we can’t say that one group’s oppression is worse than another. It is all oppression.You know some of these systems as racism, sexism, or able-ism. Let’s use heterosexism as our example. Heterosexism is the belief that heterosexuality is the normal sexuality.
The second step is to identify specific effects of the continuation of a system of oppression.As far as heterosexism goes, the fact that finding a good gay wedding card won’t happen at most neighborhood grocery stores continues because of the idea that being heterosexual is normal. The fact that companies address mass mailings to people they assume are married to Mr. & Mrs. continues because of the idea that being heterosexual is normal. The fact that two women who love each other cannot receive a marriage license in Wisconsin continues because of the idea that being heterosexual is normal.
Sometimes people think, “You’re complaining about mass mailings?” Let’s offer a different effect then.The RAND Corporation recently published that while 70% of teenagers are aware of being definitively straight, gay, or otherwise, that only about 33% of lesbian, gay, or bisexual teenagers inform their doctors of their sexuality. There were no statistics for other groups such as transgender that are often associated with these persons. I submit that since 67% of teenagers live in a world where being straight is dictated to them as normal that great harm can come to these teenagers. Non-disclosure of sexuality to doctors bolsters the following, I believe.
So, when people think that heterosexism only inconveniences where people can find gay wedding cards, remind them of our teenagers.
One additional thing that has been happening that I cannot possibly describe the full causes or affect of is the rise of HIV & AIDS amongst African American and black women in the United States. This is an oversimplification, but African American and black men have been told that it is not acceptable to be gay so they date women. But, because some of the men are actually gay, they have promiscuous sex, which is often unprotected. They then return to their girlfriends, who are often black or African American, and have further unprotected sex. I use this example to illustrate that the messages to one group about the appropriateness of their sexuality directly affects other groups. Black women are not somehow spontaneously developing HIV.
If the first step is to recognize the systems, and the second is to identify the effects, then the third step is to decide what you are going to do differently.As far as heterosexism goes, are you going to react the next time you witness someone saying that gay people are ok as long as they know they are different? As far as your current actions go, are you going to question your words the next time you catch yourself assuming everyone is straight until proven gay? Will you continue to apologize to straight people after mistaking them for gay men or lesbians as if you have insulted them?You don’t want to get uptight about your behaviors and words but what you witness or participate in may be feeding a system of oppression.
Let us leave this example of heterosexism and go into a more in-depth problem solving mode about another way we have been socialized. The following looks at ways that our lenses have even affected the way we do business with other people.
Think of the words “Inner City.” Many minds wander to what we know as “The Inner City” when we think about areas of the United States with the worst reputations for violence, crime, and dwindling achievements in education. We so often consider these areas to be full of people without drive, without real care for their neighbors, and, in between those people, some out of work residents down on their luck. Our lenses don’t stop with what we have developed about this “Inner City”—those general thoughts about lazy people—but they have also affected what it means to offer basic services to these areas.
It seems to me that regardless of how you think “Inner Cities” came to be, there are some substantial ways to consider our lenses and change our attitudes and therefore work to bolster the economies and general welfare of these areas.Let’s explore how people in these areas can obtain and maintain many of the services that most everyone else takes for granted. Remember what we heard before: we cannot change the people in our lives even though we suddenly are aware of something because we have cleared our lenses somewhat. The challenge becomes this: how can you convince corporations-that-you-cannot-change to continue services—or even to offer them in the first place—in an area that is believed to have low income and low expectancy regarding the payment of bills once services have been established?
To start, have you ever noticed that investment in items such as alcohol and cigarettes carry similar weight from neighborhood to neighborhood? We can reasonably assume based on this knowledge that such investment does not help to develop a community’s economy regardless of the amount of wealth dedicated to it. Christopher P. Beshouri points out in a 2006 edition of The McKinsey Quarterly that the type of investments that are best for what he names “emerging economies” are those that both create profit for a corporation while having positive impact on the development in that same area.
This sounds great, right? But, the immediate question has to be: why would a corporation even care to do that when they can sustain high profit with low social investment? The answer is that there are not many businesses that can sustain profit in these “Inner City” areas except for alcohol and cigarette vendors. The potential for profitability is currently low for companies that provide services such as water, electricity, housing, restaurants, and retail. So, the next question arises: what can companies do to offer services, regardless if they want to better a community or not, so as to make a profit?
I think that “to make a profit” may sound a little harsh here, but I also know that the driving force of services that we take for granted is profit. It is great when there is corporate giving, but so many of them are relegated to isolated, albeit wonderful, tear-jerking on shows such as Extreme Makeover: Home Edition. There has to be a way for corporations to consistently make a profit if they are to offer institutionalized services in a way that is accessible to “Inner City” neighborhoods. This is all a great example of acknowledging systems of oppression—say, racism, amongst them here; recognizing the effects of the systems such as beliefs that these “Inner Cities” have no worthwhile people; and now facing real challenges when trying to do something about all of this.
So, take a moment to consider why companies cannot make a profit in the communities mentioned here. Some people might conclude that it is because there is no money to be spent. This is simplistic, I would argue—and the corporations should stop believing this. The real reasons that corporations are not making money are more complicated.
The first reason I see is a top-down focus that only empowers those who see themselves above, those who are outside of the community question. If a company wants to successfully offer a service, they need to change this top-down mentality and begin to employ the residents of certain area to respect that service. And I mean pay by “employ.” This sounds like an added cost but it is actually much cheaper to hire local people than to erect state of the art security systems.
Next is the concept of wrong quantities. Companies try to sell items in quantities that do not make sense. For example, if light bulbs only come in packs of two but a person can only afford one light bulb at a time, she will decide not to purchase any light bulbs.
Third, there are endless incorrect assumptions. Corporations often assume that people do not buy their products because they do not value them. Instead of assuming that people do not want to buy a new stove, for example, it would do businesses well to realize that the gas hook-ups for that stove may be missing. Therefore, bundled services would be better received. Also, a person may be using predatory lending that offers flashy advertising instead of banks because he does not have the financial education to match his desire for credit.
Finally, inoperable billing methods persist. The way that corporations bill customers assumes that people can afford to pay in a traditional manner. Sounds like a problem with no solution, but it is solved all the time. People often pool their resources to pay for snow removal services in condo associations. Condo owners spend less money but receive the same snow services this way.
Methods will vary for the person on this problem-solving trek, but I think that the lesson here is that corporations have to be convinced to alter their service models so as to make an impact in a neighborhood. Energy companies could establish the option of common meters. This immediately creates a communal desire to pay on time: those who pay on time would enact some form of social pressure for the late payers.
The companion lesson is that while corporations are really driven by profit, that connecting this drive to economic potential for “Inner Cities” may be the only way to assist the United States’ burgeoning low income neighborhoods. We cannot keep telling business to help people; we have to show them how helping others helps the businesses, too.
Think for a moment: how did we get to economic development ideas for our cities when we were talking about socialization and lenses of identity? I used this example to point out that the reason change does not happen so often is because we have been socialized not to see the potential for change. Again, in this instance, if we see racism, and we recognize that people create negative views of certain neighborhood residents, then we can begin to make strides in how we treat those people. And, even if we cannot change everyone involved in a system, we can use their motivators—in this case business services sold for profit—to further the change we wish to see.
For many of us, this level of involvement would be too much for where we are at in our lives.Let’s go back to some practical things you might be able to do in your lives to clear up your lenses and adjust your socialization by recognizing another system that we are in.
I mentioned able-ism before.This is the belief that able bodied people are capable of functioning in social and work environments and have more to offer to those environments than those who are not able bodied.What happens because of able-ism? People are left out because they may not be able to read the information you are providing.We might decide someone’s capacity for problem-solving based on what we have been taught is an appropriate physical appearance for being smart. Somehow the famous professor Stephen Hawking was heard despite his Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis and he has since become the preeminent astrophysicist of our time.What can we do once we realize these things? We can create room in our lives for these people.People are creating wheel-chair accessible homes, even if they are not wheel-chair bound themselves; others are ensuring written transcripts of all audio materials; and some churches are doing amazing jobs of having sign language interpreters translating during services.
With all these well-meaning ideas, it is easy to begin to think from what I call a “but this is where we are now” mindset.Take the example of sign language in church services. It is good to question if that would be useful here because it is good to know the limits of what a group of people can do. If there is no one here who understands sign language, why would you have it?
This is where I suggest that people should accompany these types of thoughts with: “this is where we are, yes, but where do we want to be?”I firmly believe that no single person or church is able to address all things that you begin to see when your lenses start to clear, but to settle into a “but this is where we are now” mindset as a general mode of response means, I suggest, that you become actively complicit about the things that you could influence instead of being able to explain a powerful choice to someone about why something is the way it is.
I want to share a quick story with you written by someone after she recognized a system and its effects and decided to do something about that. Her name is Sandy Brouillette and she lives in Dallas, TX.
“I am a straight parent of a straight adult child with no real agenda. I joined [Parents, Families, and Friends of Lesbians and Gays of Dallas or PFLAG-Dallas] about 12 years ago because I have always felt very passionately about equal rights for ALL. Additionally, I was also blessed with many gay and lesbian friends who had become part of my family over the years and I was tired of witnessing the needless painful abuse and rejection they endured due to an orientation they had no control over.
Shortly after watching my first Pride Parade, I was not only determined to join PFLAG and the struggle for equality, but I also openly proclaimed that my daughter and I would be carrying the PFLAG banner in the following year’s parade and…we did just that. It was quite an honor and one of the greatest and proudest moments of my life.
My ‘coming out,’ however, was a shocking event…to me! As I drove to participate in my first Pride Parade, I had to make a stop and as I was getting out of my car, I realized I was wearing a PFLAG tee shirt.I quickly darted back into my car before anyone could see it. I sat for a moment in absolute shock…I couldn’t understand what I had just done…or why. I was proud to be seen with my gay and lesbian friends–this made no sense to me.I struggled for probably all of a minute or two with feelings of shame and disgust with myself and then proudly got out of my car with an awareness that I was now ready and deserving to march with my new PFLAG family. What an awakening! It took a while before I realized, I had an actual ‘coming out’ experience.
Over the next 12 years, I slowly graduated from sitting in the back of the room during the monthly meetings to raising my hand to make occasional comments and then taking the big step to volunteer to be the ‘cookie’ lady and bring refreshments. I slowly worked my way into being the ‘hospitality’ lady and then eventually became a member of the Board of Directors. My personal growth took off like a rocket as I learned through hands-on experience about fund raisers, speaking engagements, national conferences, rap groups and church groups.
My involvement with PFLAG is one of my proudest achievements. I hope one day the need for PFLAG will become obsolete but, until then, I will continue to struggle with my brothers and my sisters toward EQUALITY FOR ALL!”
So, we have heard about our lenses and heterosexism and other facets of our socialization—and we can either choose to say our lenses have been developed and that’s what we’re stuck with—or we can recognize that while we honor our past experiences, that we all have growing that we can do. Each of us has been socialized for practical purposes, and we will all have something to do with socializing another person.What we decide to do with our current socialization and how we will help socialize other people involves powerful choices for each of us to consider. The example of how corporations deliver services would be a lofty first step, but we can do other things. If you take only one series of thoughts with you from today, let it be no longer to assume that women are weak until known strong, no longer to believe that people of color are lazy until observed active, and to cease thinking that people are heterosexual until proven otherwise.
- Beshouri, Christopher P. “A Grassroots Approach to Emerging-Market Consumers.” The McKinsey Quarterly, No. 4, 2006.
- Brouillette, Sandy. from “Ally Stories.” In . 2007.
- Johnson, Amena. “Lens of Identity.” 2006.
– Todd Wellman (c) 2007
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