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Ways of Seeing: Johanna Nichols, Shared experiences build unity

“Would you take my picture?” asked the woman ahead of us as my friend and I entered the Cesar Chavez Park at the Berkeley marina. She wanted one with the city of San Francisco in the background and one with the San Francisco Bay. As my friend snapped the photo, she said to her family in Iran, “Come to America — I love my country!”
Having lived in Istanbul for half a year, I am more familiar with Turkish people. I didn’t have any explicit stereotypes of Turkish people before I met my son-in-law and his family. I learned about Turkish people from my experience of living there for six months. 
Stereotypes are the belief that most members of a group have some characteristic. We are hearing a stream of negative stereotypes from the new president. Some are explicit — the kind that all of us believe and say. For instance, I might say that Turks are warm and welcoming. Some are implicit — a positive or negative belief that we are not conscious of — like, Turks must believe in sharia law because they are Muslim. (Turkey is a secular democracy.)
Try answering this riddle: A father and his son are in a car accident. The father dies at the scene and the son is rushed to the hospital. At the hospital, the surgeon looks at the boy and says, “I can’t operate on this boy, he is my son.” How can this be?
How did you answer the riddle? Did you wonder if the boy had two fathers — a father and a stepfather, or a birth father and adopted father, or a gay couple? Or, did you understand that the surgeon was the boy’s mother? 
A Harvard study suggests that we might hold an implicit stereotype if we say we like female surgeons (explicit), and then we don’t associate surgeon with female (implicit).  One might not say that men are better surgeons, but one might believe it unintentionally. That is an association that we learned to believe — an implicit stereotype. (If you are interested in your own associations, visit the website implicit.harvard.edu and take the association tests. You might be surprised with the results.)
I was listening to a TED talk on stereotypes by Paul Bloom who teaches psychology at Yale. He says that we all have experiences that fall into categories. We wouldn’t survive if we couldn’t make good guesses, but we also can be wrong. Even when we know a stereotype doesn’t apply, we’re influenced by it anyway. 
He gives this example. In a study of candidates prior to the 2008 election — John McCain was thought of as more American than Barack Obama. When Sen. Obama was compared to British Prime Minister Tony Blair, some people thought of Blair as more American than Obama, even though they knew he was not American. They were responding to the color of skin. We have learned that race matters in the world we live in.
Right now, there is not enough research to say for sure that implicit stereotypes and attitudes can be reduced, let alone eliminated. However, we can find ways that increase the likelihood.
I learn much that I don’t know through people’s stories. If we sympathize with one individual in a story, our emotions can expand to a group. Getting to know my son-in-law and his family helps me to gain an accurate, fair experience that might affect my attitude towards Turkish people.
Perhaps the Iranian woman at the marina is Muslim. While there is a subset of Muslims who create legitimate fear, we should resist internalizing what has been impressed upon us — that all Muslims are terrorists or that they want to impose sharia law.
I can take advantage of whatever diversity our community offers to learn about others. As a volunteer when the Mexican consulate comes to Middlebury, I meet farm workers. Even if I sometimes feel uncomfortable, that’s okay. Talking and listening reduce fear. I learn. That can reduce a stereotype and change my attitude.
I think shared experiences can reduce negative stereotypes and increase understanding. Before ending my visit to Berkeley, I walked with my friend in Muir Woods to see the Redwood trees. Visitors come from around the globe — a million a year. I was grateful to appreciate the majestic trees with people speaking several languages. I felt a connection through a shared experience.
We are hearing all around us that we need to communicate with others, to listen and to care about others — others beyond our own kinship, others in the wider community. I trust that we have a capacity to do this, and we can transform our stereotypes.

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