The Importance of Seeing Yourself

Early on, I wrote about the need to balance windows and mirrors in our lives. An important anti-bias framework suggests the importance of “mirrors” and the need for people to see themselves reflected in the world around them. Equally important is the need for “windows” and opportunities for people to gaze outside their own world, to see and learn about other people’s realities.

Minority groups are less likely to see mirrors and more likely to see windows. The windows they see are often focused on the majority group and this imbalance can hurt one’s sense of self-worth and confidence. It’s easy to feel invisible if you don’t have mirrors around you, whether you are a person of color, a woman, someone who identifies as GLBTQ, or a person with a disability.

For the past 20 years, the White House has hosted an iftar dinner to commemorate the end of Ramadan, the Islamic month of fasting. But this year, there was no iftar dinner at the White House. Despite the fact that Presidents Clinton, Bush, and Obama hosted this celebratory dinner over the years, it didn’t happen this year. The holiday and the religious tradition were ignored. Invisible. Not seen. Imagine how that would feel if you were Muslim. No mirror for you this year.

Now, compare that to a couple of news stories that caught my attention in late May of 2017. There was a heart-warming story about a high school that included a picture of a student and his service dog in the school yearbook. Andrew “AJ” Schalk has Type 1 diabetes and he goes to school every day with his service dog, Alpha. Rather than ignore AJ’s unique health condition, the school decided to recognize and honor his important life-saving partnership by including an adorable school photo of Alpha. (Click here to read more.)

The same week, a photo appeared with the spouses of political leaders during the NATO summit in Brussels. The photo included 9 women and 1 man. The man is married to the Prime Minister of Luxembourg, who is gay. Although heterosexual men have been included in this group of spouses before, this picture was unique because it featured a gay spouse. (Click here to read more.)

These last two examples feature people who are often invisible. Imagine what it would feel like if you were a young person who is gay or who has a service dog. These stories are mirrors. They provide connections. They provide a message that you matter. Your story matters. You are not alone. We see you.

These two stories also serve as windows. They remind us that some people rely on service animals to make it through their day. They remind us that not everyone is straight. They remind us that we all have differences and that’s perfectly okay. It’s normal. These are equally important messages.

So once again, I urge you to reflect on the messages your children receive. Are there enough mirrors? Too many? What about windows? Can there ever be enough?

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The First Ripple

As I mentioned in my first post, I grew up in a homogeneous suburb of Cincinnati, Ohio. Most people looked like me, worshipped like me, and lived like me. I was surrounded by mirrors.

My slow journey towards cultural competence started when I was an undergraduate student. Although I am ashamed to share my experiences, I feel the need to put a stake in the ground so you can understand how far I have traveled. The event I want to share with you took place in 1989 at Gettysburg College, a small liberal arts school in Pennsylvania. I refer to this experience as “the first ripple.” I apologize in advance for being offensive and insensitive. (Trigger warning: homophobic slur)

Like all the freshman students, I was taking a mandatory writing seminar and we were reading books from different cultural perspectives. One of the books was On Being Gay: Thoughts on Family, Faith, and Love by Brian McNaught. The author was visiting campus and we were required to attend his presentation. I can vividly remember complaining and saying, “I can’t believe we have to go listen to this fag.” I said the f-word without any thought or embarrassment, although there was certainly malice. It was a word I knew not to use at home, but had heard a million times in high school and had said more times than I care to remember. It was a put down and unquestionably derogatory.

But something incredibly important happened. For the first time in my life, my good friend boldly responded, “I can’t believe you just said that. What is wrong with you?” I was shocked to say the least. I felt embarrassed and ashamed. She totally called me out for being homophobic and to this day I applaud her for doing the right thing. She courageously stood up to me and told me I was wrong.

I listened that evening and was captivated. Brian was a very interesting and engaging speaker. He shared that he had attempted suicide and been fired from a job because he was gay. I left thinking that he had been through a lot and had been treated unjustly. Somewhere deep inside, I felt like I was a better person just for listening to his story.

I wish I could tell you I became a straight ally overnight, but I didn’t. I still had a lot of work to do. But three important things happened that night. First, someone corrected my disrespectful language. Second, I learned about a person’s life experience that was different than my own (I peered through a window). Third, the f-word was no longer just a generic derogatory word. There was now a personal connection that hadn’t been there before.

Donna Brazile said, “It takes but one person, one moment, one conviction, to start a ripple of change.” This was my first ripple. Can you remember yours? Can you remember a moment in time when you realized you were wrong and that you needed to change?

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