I was riding the L.A. subway system over the weekend for the first time with some friends from Orange County. None of us had used the subway before. Most of us were insulated in our daily contacts from the variety of people we encountered on the subway. [Orange County is known for its homogeneous population of white, middle class, conservative citizens].
Our car was filled. A young man with tattoos all over him (except his face) got up from his seat, and offered that seat to my female friend. She was an older woman, but by no means frail. Yet he was being a gentleman. He was showing courtesy, refinement, respect, and graciousness. You would have never guessed he had such class if you had only seen to the level of his tattoos.
A tattoo is a sort of label, and it may have layers of meaning. There is the image or word itself, and then there is another question: how do we label the person wearing the labels?
On another occasion that day, an African American man in casual street attire in his 20s approached us as we were taking pictures of one another in the subway station. He offered to take our group photo. He as simply being considerate, and wanting us to enjoy our time in his neighborhood with some photos to take home. A moment of decision came for me: was this offer sincere, or was he getting ready to take our four combined cameras, and make a run for it? I realized this thought passed through my head how many unexamined biases lurked beneath my consciousness. I handed over the cameras, and he took the pictures with great patience as one of our group insisted he take a second or third shot with each camera.
Tattoos are visible labels, but most of our labeling is less obvious. We can label people by their age, by their economic status, by their skin color, by choice of clothing, by how they may walk or talk. We may judge them by their gender or occupations. But each of us is always “judging” and “categorizing” based on what our culture has taught us to believe, and the biases we have picked up along the way.
What these two encounters taught me is that I am too fearful and too cautious in making new connections with a variety of people. I exclude whole groups of people who could add richness and enjoyment to my life (and I to theirs) because I label them as “different” and “threatening” or “unworthy” in some way. What is important about any person I would trust is that person’s core character: are they decent, responsible, and honorable? Do they show care and respect for others? Are they willing to work for what they get, and to behave honestly in their dealings? Are they willing to offer their seat to an older woman on the subway? Are they willing to add to the enjoyment of a group of visitors by offer to take their picture?