Part of dealing with issues of race and prejudice in a healthy manner starts with recognizing that we all have deep-seated preconceived notions about others. Some we’re conscious of and know how we got them, and others we’re not. But both can and do affect how we view and interact with other people. A university professor we’ll call Karen learned that the hard way when she had to face her own preconceived notions. But in her case, that preconceived notion walked into her class one day with a bomb strapped to his chest.
Karen is the department chair of women’s studies at a large midwestern university. One fall, already a week into the semester, a man of Middle Eastern descent walked into her office. We’ll call him Saeed. Saeed was in his late twenties, had just arrived in the country, and was asking permission to enroll in Karen’s Introduction to Women’s Studies class. Typically, 75 percent of the students in that course are female. And she’d never had a man from the Middle East take the class before.
Looking back, she admits her first thought was, “This is going to be a tough semester. He’s going to challenge everything I say. And it’s certainly going to be awkward when I talk about how women aren’t allowed to drive in some Middle Eastern countries.” She could already picture him rolling his eyes when she discussed modern views about women that would contradict conventional wisdom where he’s from.
Well, despite those misgivings, she let him into her class anyway. And as soon as he left her office, she started having pangs of guilt over her quiet reservations. She said,
I hated myself for it almost immediately. Honestly, I just met this man. I had no evidence to make those kinds of assumptions.”
As early as the next week of classes, she started to get a picture of what Saeed was like as a student. And it was nothing like what she expected. “He was respectful, interested, engaged, and very bright.” She said, “He even brought me a copy of the Qur’an with all the passages about women highlighted to help me understand women’s issues in his culture. And there wasn’t a single day he didn’t talk to me after class about how it was relevant to his culture and what he was trying to accomplish.”
And what he was trying to accomplish was even more impressive than his in-class behavior. Saeed had arrived in the United States with his wife, who was getting a master’s degree and had plans to continue toward a Ph.D. They wanted to return to their home country when their studies were complete to provide an example of what an educated Muslim woman can accomplish and to show that it’s possible to be both a good Muslim woman and educated. He was taking this class to help him prepare for that journey.
Karen’s perception of Saeed had taken a radical turn for the better in a short eight weeks. She really had been too quick to judge him. He was truly the ideal student. Or so she thought, until one morning he walked into her class with a bomb strapped to his chest.
Despite the bulky jacket covered in explosives, the combat fatigues instead of pressed pants, and the uncharacteristic look on his face, she of course recognized Saeed immediately. But what on earth was behind this? What would cause her ideal student to turn into a terrorist overnight? Or was it worse? Was the entire eight weeks of class all a ruse and this was Saeed’s real plan all along?
She didn’t have to wait long to find out. It turned out that the cause of this sudden change in behavior in Saeed was the same thing that caused Karen to presume he’d be such a troublemaker as a student. In fact, the cause of his decision to strap a bomb to his chest wasn’t something inside Saeed. It was something inside Karen. And she realized that the moment she bolted upright in bed in a cold sweat to find that the bomb scare was nothing but a nightmare.
Karen relaxed. There was no bomb and her student was no bomber. He was the fine upstanding student she had come to know and appreciate over the first half of the semester. But then she had to ask herself, “Why would I have had such a dream? For the last two months he’d shown me nothing to give me the impression he would do anything of the sort.” Quite the opposite. He was one of her favorite students.
She concluded two things from this. First, while there was absolutely no association in her conscious mind between suicide bombers and Saeed, clearly in her subconscious mind there was.
Second, she concluded we’re probably all susceptible to making judgments about people based on stereotypes and deep-seated preconceived notions. Of all people to have had this experience, she is a professor of not just women’s studies, but also courses on race, class, and gender. She teaches awareness of these issues for a living! She of all people should be as free from those kind biases as possible. Yet twice in two months she suffered one bout of consciously biased thoughts of Saeed and one disturbing subconscious one.
And if you’re honest with yourselves, some of you reading this will admit that somewhere two paragraphs ago, you thought to yourself, “See! She was right to begin with. She should have never let this guy into her class!”
“You have to be vigilant,” Karen advises. “When you see it creep into your consciousness, confront it. None of us are immune.”
Here are a few questions you might want to think about and share with your coworkers.
- Were you more surprised when you read that Saeed walked into the class with a bomb strapped to his chest, or more surprised when you realized it was just a dream?
- Have you ever gotten to know someone and they turned out to be nothing like you thought they would? Who was it?
- How could Karen’s conscious or unconscious biases toward Saeed have affected her behavior and role as his professor?
- What might be a legitimate use of statistical profiling or stereotyping?
[You can find this and over 100 other character-building stories in my book, Parenting with a Story.]
Paul Smith is one of the world’s leading experts on business storytelling. He’s a keynote speaker, storytelling coach, and bestselling author of the books Lead with a Story and Parenting with a Story.
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