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Sunday, August 3, 2014

Perception and Reality

I was on a flight from Orlando back to Baltimore and had the pleasure of sitting next to a…well a rather interesting individual.  Donned in an oversized t-shirt and baggy jeans, his eyes roamed from seat to seat until he noticed the empty one to my right. He swaggered over, cell phone propped against his ears muttering some nonsense about a “baby mamma” between ample amounts of expletives and ghetto slang. My brother, who had the window seat, elbowed me and smirked, “there’s a guy for you.” I rolled my eyes, but I couldn't help but laugh at the absurdity of me dating some thugged-out guy who looked like he was late for a rap audition. When we were in the air and allowed to turn on our devices, I grabbed my tablet and began a game of chess. My thug companion looked over at me, “I aint played chess in a long time,” he declared before asking me if I wanted to play a game with him.

This ought to be an easy win, I thought, once more taking in the guy’s rough appearance and his abundant use of Ebonics. After all, everyone knows that chess is a game of intelligence and strategy. I cleared the game I was playing and reset the application to two players. And everything after that is a blur, because in just a few moves my seat mate cleaned the floor with me. I challenged him again. And again with quick thinking and phenomenal strategizing he swept all my pieces off the board. The last thing I remember hearing was “checkmate.”

“Good game shawty, but next time you gotta back up your pieces, know w' Umm sayin.” Then he proceeded to give me a slang-infused lecture on how to predict my opponent’s moves. The chess masters may have laughed at him, but everything he told me was accurate. That day I was schooled, not just in chess, but in real life. I am biased. I assumed I couldn't learn anything from someone who I perceived as ignorant, but this is a lie. Everyone has something he can teach you, if you are willing to learn.  So often we use the way people talk as an indication of their intelligence. I've done that too, but there isn't always a clear-cut correlation between speech patterns or accent and intelligence. We use the way people dress, they way they walk, their size, color, and country of origin to make inferences about them. And I do too! This is perfectly normal, yet we must remember that these are surface characteristics that do not always reveal the true nature of the individual.

Last week I watched a poet on youtube, who expressed her opinion on the objectification of women, not just in the media, but in everyday life. I applauded the sister, but you know there was at least one person who missed the message of the poem. That person and his supporters chose to focus on the woman’s accent—which was a distinct urban mixture tinged in a charming Spanish cadence. That person literally missed the entire point of a poem against societal evils because he was too busy focusing on what did not matter. Our society does that a lot. Especially when it comes to minorities. We assume that delivery and presentation are everything and as a result we miss out. We discount people as unintelligent because they don’t speak like those in the majority. We miss the words, the lessons, and the experiences, because we don’t like the way a certain segment of the population delivers them.

In her poem, “Broken English”, Jamila Lyiscott explains that she has three ways to speak English, the dialect she speaks with her friends, in the classroom, and with her parents. Take a listen here https://www.ted.com/talks/jamila_lyiscott_3_ways_to_speak_english. BTW, Jamila is a doctoral student at an Ivy League school. It would be easy to look at her t-shirt and jeans, and make certain judgments about her, but in doing so, you would miss out.

This isn't an article validating Ebonics/slang, although I agree with many of Jamila’s points. Instead I’m just shining a light on our collective biases. All of us judge people.  Perhaps judging people isn't even entirely wrong, but before you make a judgment take the time to get all the facts. We make all kinds of assumptions about people, sometimes those assumption can even be accurate. But be careful, assumption are not always reality! Like my travel companion taught me, you can learn from anybody! Before you write someone off, take a moment to reevaluate your personal biases. Perception is not always reality. 

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