Who are those strangers, really?

I used to think that if I had a negative judgment about someone I didn't know, it meant I was a rotten person.

This felt especially true if my judgment was toward a person of color, or a non-English speaker, or someone with a disability, or anyone else who tends to get discriminated against in our society.

I was scared of people finding out about all these judgments for fear of being labeled a racist, or a xenophobe, or simply a jerk.

But the truth is, I have a lot of judgments, about all sorts of people I don't know, on a regular basis. People at the grocery store. People walking around town. People with their kids on the playground. People in the news. Sometimes I do link the judgments to race or class, but it might also be the expression on their face, or the way they talk, or the kind of shirt they're wearing, or something even pettier than that.

What's striking to me is how automatic the process is:

  1. I encounter someone unknown
  2. I feel some fear (because unknown = potentially scary!)
  3. I justify my fear with a negative judgment

Those negative judgments can be enticing when I feel afraid, because they offer a sort of safety through certainty. (If I know there's a potential enemy out there, then I can protect myself, right?)  But the problem is, they're usually wrong! Or at the very least, based on very incomplete information. And they can easily magnify and globalize my original fear, so it's not just this particular person I have to protect myself against, but a whole category of people.

Holding on to negative judgments like that creates a scary world in which I feel vulnerable to people who are unknown and different from me. 

I don't know about you, but I really dislike feeling that way about the people around me. And so lately I've been trying to add step 4: reminding myself that the fear and judgment simply mean I don't know the person yet (or don't know enough).

I love that 4th step because it helps me let go of the false certainty of my judgment, and find some peace and humility in remembering how much I don't know. Who is that person, anyway? What is their life like? What might they be experiencing right now? Curiosity helps me expand my perspective and maybe even learn something new about a person.

As a human being, I'm not sure there's much I can do to avoid steps 1-3. I will always be encountering new people who are different from me, fear is a natural adaptive response to that novelty, and there are practically unlimited judgments and stereotypes I can draw on to turn someone unknown into a scary "other." But that's not where it has to end, for any of us.

I'm curious how you relate to the experience of judging and stereotyping strangers. What happens when you catch yourself doing it?  

And what about those people you struggle with whom you have known a long time? In what ways could you get curious about them?