How We Are Defined

            In early childhood we begin accumulating those factors that define us. For example, a cranky baby’s stories will be told and retold for years, often as a reminder to the growing child that he was challenging, to say the least.

            A child who climbs up on the roof will be known as a daredevil, while that one who huddles in a corner of the living room and reads will be called a bookworm.

            The teens who listen obsessively to loud music might later grow up to be musicians, all because of being defined by their passion. At the same time an overly dramatic child will be called a drama queen and encouraged to participate in the high school’s theater program.

            We are who others see us as.

            The new employee, after being introduced to the crew, might pick up a nickname based on a superficial trait. For example, if the person is tall and willowy, she might be called a giant, while the short, squat individual will be shorty. No matter how hard that person tries to rid herself of the nickname, it won’t change. She’s been defined by a physical characteristic, something that’s impossible to change.

            In later years, as our interests expand, we might change our preferred music styles or learn to cook a new cuisine, but we’ll be forever known as the cupcake queen or the rock-and-roller.

            Other things define us as well. Our hair color influences how people see us. Blondes are often perceived as dumb while red heads are thought to be fiery. Clothing styles might earn us a label of being punk rockers or snobby. Depending upon how new our clothes are, people might define us as being raggedy or fashionable.

            Even the color of our skin and our gender influences how people see us. We’ve become aware of how restrictive dark skin is in terms of negative labels. Almost every day there’s a story in the news in which a dark-skinned person is killed or injured, harassed by store owners or the police, or caught doing nothing more than barbequing while black.

            Some people try to lighten their skin in order to appear “white”, hoping to change how they are defined. They might also use hair straighteners and heavy lacquers to dampen tight curls.

            Some of our features cannot be changed. As Asian person, as well as someone with Down’s Syndrome, cannot change the shape of their eyes. This defining characteristic is currently causing acts of hate and discrimination. Walking down the street can lead to death.

            Another way we are defined is by our weight. If as a child a person was overweight, that child will be taunted and tormented throughout the rest of her school days. Perhaps that’s better then being invisible, but not by much.

            When an obese person walks through a store, people will often stop and gawk, but only after the person has moved away. In crowded situations, such as on an airplane, people cringe and look down, hoping to discourage the overweight individual from sitting next to them.

            Employers reject the obese without giving them the opportunity to perform on the job. Why? Because of a perceived bias, thinking that the obese are slovenly and lazy.

            At the same time an extremely thin person is seen as energic and lively. Picture an athlete, perhaps one who jumps over hurdles. You see someone with long, thin legs. Basketball players fall into the same category, but not necessarily football players. Linesmen are huge, often with bellies that are barely contained by the uniform. Because of being athletes, however, weight does not define them.

            Only the average person walking down the street.

            What all these characteristics have in common is that they are visual representatives of who the individual is. Nothing indicates personality, perseverance, skill or social skills.

            We are defined by how others perceive us and there’s very little we can do to change that. We might lose weight, but those earlier images of us carrying excess pounds are glued to us and cannot be shed. We might style our hair and wear better clothes, but we’re still thought of as poor slobs. We might work on being more amiable, but cannot shake off the perception to being difficult.

            Our earliest definitions stick with us.

            What a shame.

Misconceptions

            It’s all too easy to formulate theories based on first impressions. I know that I was judged many times over my life, and in most cases, the opinion-formers were probably right.

            My parents dressed me in old-fashioned, homemade clothes. The fabrics and styles weren’t right for the times. They made me where black and white saddle shoes when others had moved on to loafers. With a penny in the slot, no less.

            So here I am, wearing skirts down to my shins, long sleeved blouses with vests on top, and those godawful shoes. Picture me walking the halls of my high school. Add to that, my hair was never in style and I wore wing-tipped blue tinted glasses.

            First impressions? That I was a nerd or poor or both. And they would have been right on all counts. No misconceptions there.

            When I was a teacher, I became aware of what happened when a new student entered the room. One: all heads turned. Two: some students averted their eyes while others gaped. Three: students sitting near an empty desk either looked welcoming or recoiled. Four: once the student was seated, almost everyone stared, trying to determine whether or not those first impressions were correct.

            New students arrived all throughout the school year. I decided to turn first impressions into what I hoped was a valuable lesson. I talked about what goes through a person’s mind when someone new appears. I asked my students to generated ideas. They were extremely adept at doing so, as long as I was the one recording words on the board.

            Once we had covered the board with ideas, I had them write. Something. It could be an original story or something they had witnessed.

            Students are incredibly perceptive. They can also be open to suggestions. Because of our idea-generating discussion, what they wrote touched on how first impressions can not only be wrong, but can also be damaging. Many of my students, who all had learning differences that made reading and writing challenging, had been subjected to negative impressions that colored their school experience.

            In my own life, I have tried not to allow myself to fall into the misconception trap, but it’s hard. A tall, gangly man stumbling down the street? Not a danger to me, right? But why is he stumbling? Could he be drunk or ill? Disabled in need of a cane? I could give him an entire story based on first impressions.

            How many of us, seeing a young man of an ethnicity not our own, formulates impressions that cause us to cross the street or grab our purse tight to our bodies? We tell ourselves that we are not racist, that that’s not the reason we were fearful, but if not fear-based racism, what is it then?

            Recently I was hiking in a local park with a friend. We are used to bicyclists and other hikers. We know that people with dogs also hike the same trails. But when we heard motors approaching, we were taken aback. What could be causing the noise? What could they be doing?

            When we made out riders coming up the hill, we both said, that can’t be legal. We froze in place, wondering what to do. We have never seen a ranger hiking the trails, neither of us had a phone, and the reception is poor anyway.

            We had both decided that whoever these riders were, they were doing so illegally. Our first impressions matched. We just didn’t know what to do from that point forward.

            Then the riders popped out from around a turn and it became obvious that our impressions were completely wrong. Every rider was from some form of police unit. There were officers in police uniform, in sheriff’s uniform and in park greens. They saluted us in greeting as they passed.

            Imagine if we had allowed our misconceptions to report unauthorized riders? We would have been humiliated when some form of law officer arrived, only to change our story that only law officers had been riding through the park! We concurred that it was most likely some type of training exercise, then went on our way.

            Misconceptions happen all too often. Many times, they cause tragic events, such as shootings or chases down busy streets. Sometimes store owners perceive individuals as potential threat and call for backup, only to find that all the people wanted was cold drinks and snacks. Imagine if the police had stormed in with guns drawn! Someone might be dead, all because of misconceptions.

             There is a lesson to be learned here. We do need to check people out for potential threats to ourselves and others, but we also need to allow ourselves to change those impressions as soon as we realize that there is no threat.

            This also applies when someone new enters our space. Instead of ruling out the person as a possible friend, lets give the person a chance. She might be lonely and frightened. He might be a gentle giant. She could love books and movies and he might enjoy the same video games.

            First impressions often lead to misconceptions that deprive us of new friends and new experiences.

            Don’t let that happen.