I remember when I was a child, I was told not to stare at people in wheelchairs or homeless people sleeping on sidewalks. By not looking at them, I wouldn’t have to see a person who isn’t “normal.” Not sure if it was to protect me from seeing how many people live outside of my bubble or to make sure that I didn’t interact with those types of people because they might be violent or they might make me uncomfortable.
Either way, I quickly formed the stereotype, prejudice, and stigma about that person. While this was not to create a discriminatory bias, it did, however, on both a conscious and subconscious level. It dehumanized those people who were different from me. And today, this has become accepted social behavior.
One of my students is doing a project on how to reduce negative stereotypes in her plan to stop the hatred that fuels violence and discord in America. We’ve explored ways to break these stereotypes and recently came across a study done by Professor Alicia Nordstrom. She required her students to interview a person that they either didn’t like or belonged to a religious or ethnic group that they feared. Then, the students had to write a memoir about that person’s life.
While her students didn’t want to do the assignment at first, they all found that their interviewees were just “regular” people – like you and me. Nordstrom expanded her study to include people with mental health issues and physical disabilities. The results were the same: they found that their subjects were all normal, regular people, regardless of their disability and psychological issues.
So maybe if we could open doors to have conversations with people who don’t share our ideas or lifestyles, we might – just might – become more compassionate and understanding. Maybe we could find a way to create solutions to the many problems we ALL face.