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Fred's Views


What! Me Discriminate?

I consider myself to be a liberal thinker, open-minded and fair. Perfect in almost every way ... oops, I got carried away.

Nevertheless, it was something of a shock to realize the other day,just how imperfectly human I am. As a teacher, I meet new students on a regular basis, and I am expected to know their names within a reasonably short period of time. If I meet just one new student and have a couple of days working with that student, I can usually fix his/her name in my memory. But when I have three or four students arriving on the same day, it takes a lot longer. I've also discovered other factors that affect how fast and well I remember individual students. Unfortunately, these factors also reveal much about my shortcomings as well.

First, however, a little background: I am what is commonly referred to as a WASP (white, Anglo-Saxon protestant). I am male. I am nearing retirement. I teach adults who need upgrading of their academic (and computer) skills usually in preparation for some other training or post-secondary education. In our program, students can start at almost any time. I usually "fill in" for other teachers who have a few days of "non-teaching" time. Since our program runs year-round (or at least 11 months), and requires more contact hours with students than other programs, our teachers get their non-teaching days (vacation and other work related days) spread out through the year. As a result, it is not unusual for me to meet a student for just a few days and then not see him/her again for a month or more.

It's an old racial slur that "all [insert racial description here] look alike". Actually, science now tells us that there is only one race, the human race. African-Americans, Native Americans, Europeans, people of Asian or Middle-Eastern descent, etc. represent local variations of the same race. Anyway, as with most old sayings, there is an element of truth. I am firmly convinced that people with similar characteristics are better able to see the subtle differences between other people sharing the same characteristics than between people with different characteristics. Confused? Okay, but I'm just using this as an example. A Caucasian person can more easily see the subtle differences in other Caucasian people than they can in African-American people. I suspect the reverse is also true. (African-American people can more easily see the subtle differences between other African-American people than they can with Caucasian people.) Even though I think there is validity to this concept, I don't like to admit that it applies to me.

So, what are the factors that influence me: I am most likely to remember that name of a student if

I am most unlikely to remember the name of a student if ...

I am not really a "people" person. When I meet someone at a meeting or socially and we are introduced, I take almost no notice of his/her name. I shouldn't do that, but I do. If someone calls and gives their name, it never registers with me (unless I already know them). I often see people that I think I should know. Sometimes they just have a familiar face, and sometimes they are people I have met in the past. In the latter case, I almost never can come up with a name unless that person first gives me a few clues in conversation. Strangely, most people seem to know me, although I don't think myself very memorable. (On the plus side, I don't think I've changed all that much through the years - just put on some weight, grayed and thinned my hair - while most other people have changed significantly. I look at my colleagues who started about the same time as I did and wonder how they got so old, while I am still my same ageless self. - yeah, right!)

So, anyway, I have three or four women of, I think, middle-eastern background. One is somewhat heavier than the others, so I have finally pinned a name to her. The others are somewhat similar in appearance, tend to wear conservative or traditional clothing, and are seldom in the same classroom at the same time. I regret to say that I have still not nailed down their names positively. I still can't pick out that unique characteristic each must have that would allow me to positively identify them. When I realized this, one day, I thought of that old racial slur, and realized that, in a way, it applied to me. The essential difference was that I was not using it to disparage anyone. However, I had not taken the time I should have to get to know each one as an individual. (One of the hazards when both people are shy by nature.)

Although I seem to take in everything that is around me, I do not discriminate well. Oops, I mean I have difficulty picking out differences and similarities between items or people. I have seen programs such as America's Most Wanted or Unsolved Mysteries where a fugitive's picture or drawing is posted. Even if I were unlucky enough to have such a fugitive in my community, I truly doubt that I would recognize him (or her) from the photo or drawing. Yet, people do! And it almost always amazes me that a person was identified from the photo because, when you see them on the TV, they hardly resemble the photo at all, or so I think.

So, what's the point of all this? If you're still reading, you need some reward as well as a "Thank you". Yet, I'm not sure what my point is. Actually, there are a couple of points: One, if you take a good look at yourself, you're likely to find a few chinks in your armour. Maybe you are practicing a form of discrimination without realizing it. Worse, perhaps it is obvious (or at least noticeable) to everyone else but you. I know that looking at an attractive woman gives me some pleasure, it brightens my day. There's nothing wrong with that. (It may not be noble, but it's not wrong.) But it can't go any further. Unfortunately, I have, at times, found myself more likely to bend a few insignificant rules for an attractive woman or a person with a "winning" personality, than for any one else. And that's not right.

On the other hand, (and this is my second point), It is unreasonable to expect anyone to be completely free of small prejudices or free of being influenced. We all know of the stereotype situation where a pretty girl talks the policeman out of getting a ticket. It does happen. It shouldn't. Usually, it's no big deal. (Fortunately, most people who act civilly with a traffic cop will end up getting a bigger break than they deserve.) I'm not condoning prejudice or special flavors. I'm just saying put them in perspective. Be aware of your faults and make an effort to improve. That's all I ask. That's all anyone can expect.


Copyright © 2000, 2001 by Fred Oldfield. All rights reserved.

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