From 1991 to 1995, I went to church camp every summer for a week. It’s hard for me to admit to the internets that yes, I did go to church (sort of; mostly for choir and youth group) back when I was an impressionable youth. I went to this church that was basically one step away from Unitarian Universalism (it was a UCC church; relatively undogmatic as far as those things go). We had a female minister and she said the Lord’s Prayer as “Our Creator, who art in Heaven” rather than “Our Father” etc. There were people of many different faiths in attendance and we had several committed gay and lesbian couples. Anyhow, there was a church camp associated with this church and my best friend went every year, so when we became friends she convinced me to go too.
I have a lot of stories to tell about Camp Caz and my adolescence, how I first held hands with a boy there, and how I fell in serious like at least three times (twice in one week!), and why this one time some guys decorated the backstop with toilet paper and got away with it. But that’s not the point of this story. Let’s just say that the church camp was about as unchurch-y as one can get and still be considered a church camp. Sure, we had vespers (sort of a church service) out in the woods, and we sang some churchy songs (and also some war protest folk songs), but mostly it was like any other camp you might attend, with cabins and a lodge and goat boners and because it was junior high and high school, there were a lot of hormones flying around. In fact, one thing you might hear if you happened to be walking by (it was kind of in the middle of nowhere, so I’m not sure why you would be, but humor me here) during lunchtime was a song sung back and forth between tables attempting to one-up each other in punnish grossness (“Have you ever heard a hormone, a hormone, a hormone, have you ever heard a hormone now you tell us when!”) Heh.
Oh, I have many stories about camp, as I’m sure any of you who went to camp do as well, but last night I was reminded of something in particular that’s stuck with me for 15 years or so. This one time at camp we had a big group activity called IWITC (It’s what’s inside that counts). I’m sure it was all the rage at all the hippie church camps in the early 90s, and I don’t remember much of it, but I do remember that it was the first time I really thought about that concept. In junior high people are usually so caught up in what everybody else thinks about them, about what they look like and are they funny looking or fat and who is judging my hand-me-down clothes and who am I and me me me. And just as we all worry about who is judging us, we also judge others by how they are dressed, their makeup, their attitudes, whether they are wearing what young people in whichever era have deemed to be cool. As teenagers, we are so me-focused and yet so you-comparative, it’s really kind of funny. I’d never given a lot of thought to what snap judgments meant or how stereotyping someone by what they look like or their accent or whether they have pegged jeans might prove hurtful to others. Camp, like any environment in which kids between the ages of 11 and 17, had its share of cliques and groups. There were the cool kids and the kids who looked or smelled funny and everyone in between. We were all so messed up then, just trying to figure out who we were and what our sense of style should be and what our goals in life should be other than just to get through the teenage years that I’m sure none of us had given much thought to the concept of IWITC, the idea that maybe you should get to know someone as a person (or at least not make a presumption about them at first glance) before deciding if you could like them or be friends with them or at least not be mean.
It’s difficult to teach the concept of empathy to teenagers as a whole, I think. They’re just starting to get past the complete self-centeredness of childhood yet still have to be concerned with themselves perhaps more than necessary in order to survive the gauntlet of junior high and high school. Even though the acronym was a little cheesy, and of course, duh, what someone looks like isn’t necessarily who they ARE, but nobody had ever put it into terms that a whole room full of 13 and 14 year-olds could understand until that day. At least, not when I was around.
I was reminded of IWITC last night after relating a story to Dan. On Wednesday I rode the bus up the 16th street mall back to work after the dentist had finished mangling my mouth. Across from me on the bus was a girl about my age who had a 2-year-ish old boy sleeing in a stroller. Next to her in a seat was a 3-year-ish old girl and a guy who, if I’d seen in any other situation, I would have judged completely differently. He was one of those skinny gangster types, with crooked teeth and a shaved head, dirty clothes and jagged nails and tattoos all over. The kind of guy that you’d expect to see posturing and looking menacing. But it was obvious that he was partner-of-girl and dad-of-son-and-daughter. The little girl looked like an exact cross between her parents (luckily, it was cute, not weird, and she didn’t have any tattoos on her neck like her parents did). She was talking to her Daddy and he was talking back, being a parent, taking an interest in what she had to say. They shared a Big Gulp. She leaned up and gave him a kiss at one point. To her, he was Daddy and not some scary gangster-type, just her daddy who shared his seat and his Big Gulp with her and answered the questions she had about riding the bus.
Later, I thought a bit more about my own snap judgment. Like I said, if I’d seen that guy in any other context, my opinion of him probably would have been completely different. And that kind of makes me an asshole. I shouldn’t judge people by what they look like, no matter how skeevy they are, no matter what stereotypes they fit. Because that scary guy might be somebody’s daddy, or that gaggle of teenaged girls in skimpy clothing might regularly volunteer at a hospital. All those people you see might have college degrees. They might have beaten cancer. You just never know.
After I told Dan the story of the gangster daddy on the bus, he told me about some of his schoolmates. He goes to a campus that has a high population of Muslim students of all ethnicities, and the women wear various levels of covering (long sleeves, skirts, pants, headscarf tight around the face or very loosely covering the hair). In any other context, one might judge them differently because the clothes they wear proclaim their religion to everyone who sees them. We (non-Muslim) Americans have this stereotypical idea about how Muslims treat women, how they are not allowed to be educated or have health care, but honestly that is a very small part of the world’s Muslim population. The Muslim girls at the school where Dan attends obviously have support toward their education, whether it be cultural, religious, or familial. They’re successful and will have jobs and families after college. There’s no reason, when you see a Muslim woman in a hijab walking down the street, to think she is unvalued, uneducated, or unhappy with her situation. Yet another circumstance where judging someone by how he or she looks doesn’t always match up with reality.
For 15 years (or thereabouts), IWITC has been rattling around in the back of my brain. It’s time I bring it back to the forefront, because there’s no reason I should be prejuding people’s personalities or circumstances by what they look like. Everyone has a story, and while stereotypes serve a purpose they aren’t one-size-fits-all. Internets, here is my vow: to consciously avoid snap judments and prejudice whenever possible. I’m sure some of it can’t be helped, but there’s no reason I can’t take a little longer to smile, say hi, or just consider the circumstances before I make a decision about a given person.