I’ve experienced a few times a feeling of annoyance that there aren’t any gas stations in downtown Dubuque. It’s really inconvenient! But when I really pay attention, I see that actually there are several. I don’t really have to go far to get to one. So what’s going on?
Well, how do gas stations downtown look compared to those in other, more suburban parts of the city? Pretty different … a little more cramped, dingy, a different clientele. It’s embarrassing to admit, but I think this attitude is a reflection of an old, deeply ingrained prejudice … basically, that it’s not safe to be around people of color or who have less money than I … people who look a little rough around the edges, like things aren’t quite together in their lives. I’m sorry I think this way, and I realize this may sound incredibly small-minded to anyone who grew up in a real city. As a consolation to myself, I remember that my childhood environment was so different …
I grew up in a small town west of Dubuque (population about 2,000). Between my backyard and the horizon was a cornfield. I was aware of one African-American student in my high school of 800 people. I felt like I was a minority because I was not Catholic and could eat meat any Friday of the year. I distinctly recall a classmate giving me an “if you’re not Catholic, then what ARE you?” sort of reaction when I shared this fact. Because everyone was pretty much the same in my town, racism was not a thing that was explicitly imparted to me, but a general inclination to fear anything that was different certainly was.
In The Language of Emotions, Karla McClaren says that fear “arises to orient you to change, novelty, or possible physical hazards. Fear focuses on the present moment and your immediate surroundings.” She continues on to explain: “Most of us have been taught to see fear as a problem in and of itself, and even the mention of the word can make people uncomfortable. If you think of the ways we talk about fear, you’ll be hard-pressed to recall anything that suggests fear might be useful or necessary.” She goes on to describe all kinds of situations where fear properly felt and acted on is actually quite useful: avoiding an automobile accident by instinctively maneuvering your car out of harm’s way, or handling an emergency such as a house fire in a very calm and focused manner, or even more subtle changes like taking on a new job, a new love, or any new direction in your life.
“Fear is not cowardice; it is the protective mechanism inside you that knows you’re not adequately prepared for whatever is coming next. Fear stops you—not to immobilize you, but to give you the time you need to gather yourself and your resources. Fear steps forward when you require extra skills—or time to take a breather—so that you can make it through the next moment. If you trust your fear and take time to focus yourself, it will give you those skills.”
In light of this, fear of difference doesn’t seem so bad or unnatural, does it? It’s what I do with that fear that causes the problem. Do I stuff it down and charge ahead? Do I create blind spots—places or people I don’t even consider interacting with? McClaren says, “Dishonoring fear (which most of us learn to do in early childhood) can lead to a situation where unhelpful levels of fear appear at odd times for no apparent reason, while focused and useful levels of fear aren’t readily available when they’re needed. This disorder does not originate in the fear itself; it often arises as a direct result of the way we’ve all learned to devalue, reject, and dishonor our fear”
What would happen if, instead of ignoring fear, we honored it?
Today, I’m a proud city dweller. I love the convenience, the community and the abundance of opportunities. I ride the city bus for fun. By profession, I’m a graphic designer—I have literally been honing my skills to discern minute differences for my entire adult life. And I’m pretty darn good at it. Show me a design with one line of text in the wrong font and I’ll pick it out immediately. I have also learned recently that I am “highly-sensitive,” which is a personality trait that makes me hypersensitive to external stimuli, subtle differences, and emotions. Essentially, I experience the world with more intensity than the average person.
So, when I consider the environment I was raised in and my heightened ability to detect difference, these blind spots to downtown gas stations actually kinda make sense. It is an unconscious behavior acted out to keep me feeling safe. But it does not serve me. Least of all because it would be convenient to remember I can fill my gas tank downtown, and, most of all, because I really want to be a consistently loving person who sees my fellow human beings for who they are, rather than blinded by external appearances.
They say awareness is the first step to change. So I am aware now that I carry this bias with me. I can watch for its expression in other parts of my life. Most importantly, I can accept it. It’s not pretty, but it’s there. Only by accepting it can I hope to change.
Karla McClaren quotes source: http://karlamclaren.com/fear-intuition-instincts-and-awareness/