While at Legal Services I got involved in an ongoing project to train other attorneys/advocates in "race-based" advocacy. If you are moved right now to gasp and exclaim that nothing should ever be "race-based" because we're seeking, or even that we already live in, a "colorblind" society where everyone has the same opportunities to succeed based on their personal merits alone, I'll ask you to as a favor to me to just accept, for the duration of your reading this post, that colorblindness is a pernicious lie with scientific research to prove it (if you believe that stuff they do at Harvard has credibility - you don't have to, but maybe just for this blog, accept that assertion too).
Of course there are all kinds of implicit, or unconscious biases, that are connected to other traits than race...gender, sexual orientation, ethnicity, hairstyle, weight, height, disability, religion...and having any assortment of unconscious biases doesn't necessarily make one a bigot, because if it did, no non-bigots would exist. I would be willing to bet one million dollars on the fact that His Holiness the Dalai Lama has, with some frequency in his life, noticed the arising in his heart of aversion to a particular person or group of people, and furthermore, that at some time(s) in his life, he has failed, at least for awhile, to notice the arising of aversions. Go ask him, have him sign an affidavit, and send me a copy of it with your cashier's check.
I'm thinking of this right now because of the experience I just had in a sandwich shop. Well after the lunch rush, not that busy, there's a woman in an overcoat standing ahead of me either not yet decided on her order, or already being helped, because there is a young man behind the counter gesturing that he is ready to help someone, and she's not moving. I have a feeling of aversion to the young man. The boy. I don't like his scraggly mustache and slightly sunken cheeks. He doesn't look very smart. He looks like somebody who might look a little menacing if he were not wearing the shop uniform. I don't think about any of this at the time, I just feel it and go right on up to the counter and order as if everything is fine, because it is. I'm supposedly very polite and kindhearted, but I secretly react this way to people all the time. Another worker, a young woman, is assembling or prepping something or other. I feel less averse to her, she looks smarter and not menacing at all, though she's little scrawny and pretty in a very dull, conventional way that her coworker probably likes but I don't. So there's more aversion, though milder, and not then given any thought.
I've told the guy what I want, and he lopes off to get it, when suddenly the woman who had been standing in front of me pipes up. "Wasn't I next??" she demands. The guy is all flustered - "Oh - I'm sorry - I thought you'd already been helped - I thought she (the girl) was helping you." "No," she says. I gesture for her to please go ahead of me and for the crew to help her first. I notice she is engrossed with her Blackberry. AVERSION. This time, I notice that I'm having the aversion right away and set about to let go of it, while I wait for the girl to finish whatever she is doing since there are currently no other visible customers. I lean toward the other customer and say "I'm sorry, ma'am, I didn't realize you hadn't been helped yet." She says "It's okay" without looking up from the Blackberry.
I repeat my order to the girl. I feel less averse to her then because she has a sweet smile, but she needs to speak up because I can barely hear her ask me "wuhdyoulikechipsoradrink?" Other customer is still at the counter, very focused on her Blackberry, thumbs a-flutter. Girl goes away and assembles my order. Yet a third worker is in charge of the register (confirming my feeling that the guy cannot be trusted to use it, and the girl is perhaps inadequately trained to do so - now is there some bias there, or what?). Other customer has already paid and gotten her food but she's still standing at the counter. I wonder what she's 'talking' about - it seems very, very serious. I think of many times that I have been or continue to be zoned out and in my own world in a public place, but I would never let my Blackberry come between me and my lunch.
I finally get my food, and my cup for the soda, and have paid for it, and who is now standing in front of the soda machine with her sandwich bag sitting patiently in front of the diet cola, but...yes. I walk over slowly so as not to cause alarm. I pretend to be interested in a freezer case full of ice cream (well, I didn't pretend, exactly). Then I decide I will just have to invade Text Lady's personal space to get my drink. I stand at one side of the fountain and reach out to fill my cup from a spigot at the other end, where she's standing. Unfortunately, she's standing right in front of the lids and straws. I walk around her and reach in, this time close enough to her person that she notices and says "Oh, pardon me" and steps aside. Still texting. While I'm getting my lid I am this close to saying, "That must be a really serious conversation you're having!" In my head I actually don't feel snarky about it - I would have meant it 90% sincerely, but she would probably only hear the 10% judgment/annoyance disguised as a joke - so I didn't say anything, and left her still typing away. I hope she was eventually able to eat. I hope she rode a bus to the sandwich place. But let she who is without sin cast the first stone.
It may have, in fact, been a really, really serious conversation. I visited a civil harassment restraining order court once and I learned a lot about the kinds of very serious conversations people have by text message, which the other person then saves on his/her phone and brings the phone to court to show the judge (who had to figure out how to use about four different models of phones that day) as evidence that Textor poses an imminent threat to the health and safety of Textee. But sandwich shop customer's conversation seemed way too long for that sort of abrupt content, and her affect was kind of blank. Just very focused.
I left out of this narrative mention of the races of the people involved. There were racial factors that I don't think played into my feelings of aversion at all, but definitely played into my ability to be conscious of the feelings when they arose. Does this conversation make you uncomfortable? If it did, when? Does my talking about my biases make you feel like it's safer to acknowledge yours, because you have them and we both know it, or are you thinking who the hell am I to say that, because you have absolute equanimity, you don't make unconscious judgments based on race, gender, scraggly mustaches, timid voices, and oblivious behavior? Are there some human traits/behaviors to which you feel justified in your aversion, to the extent you realize it's happening? Of course there are - endless legal and literal battles have been waged in the effort to justify aversions.
In "Wild Geese," a poem that has come to have the significance of scripture, or a prayer, or mantra for many people, including myself, Mary Oliver writes "Tell me about despair, yours, and I will tell you mine./ Meanwhile the world goes on." Since this post is almost done so it doesn't seem like too much more to ask, since you've made it this far, I'll ask one more favor: consider that there is link between our unexamined - not to mention our actively indulged/justified/exercised - aversions, and our despair. [Yes, of course I know there's a link between our greedy-grabby-clinginess and our suffering/despair, but sheesh, let's not go there now, okay?] "Whoever you are, no matter how lonely" -- typing the entire Declaration of Independence with your thumbs, word-by-word, from memory, while trying to order a sandwich; doing your best to hold down a job in a sandwich shop; distancing yourself from people by judging them based on their mustaches (how do I know, maybe his mustache is an immutable characteristic due to some kind of condition he suffers from) - whoever you are, "the world offers itself to your imagination." If you don't like what you see, imagine seeing it differently.