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Beyond the Masks

variety of colorful masks
Photo by notfrancois

We live with so many masks—some we create for ourselves and some we perceive in others…

I was on the train the other day (the MAX, Portland’s light rail) when a man got on and sat down in the seat in front of me. He was African-American, his hood pulled up and was talking to himself. I was instantly alert. But It soon became clear that he was actually on the phone. The hood and his stocking cap completely obscured his ear phones.

I was struck by how much I’d assumed from his style of dress and how many of those assumptions simply weren’t true. I assumed he was mentally imbalanced—he was just having a conversation. I assumed he was young—he was actually older than he appeared. I assumed he was angry—his tone suggested otherwise.

I saw the hood and thought I knew what kind of a person he was. I couldn’t have been more wrong. I was reacting to a mask and mistook it for the real person inside.

The seat next to him was empty. As the train pulled into the station, a woman on the platform noticed it and a moment later appeared in the aisle. She was a middle-aged white woman. As she approached the seat, she saw the man sitting next to it. She had two seconds to assess the situation and determine if it was safe. What did she see? A black man in a hood talking to himself. Too many danger markers. She turned away. I caught her eye and smiled. I’d had more time to process what I was seeing and tried to reassure her, but it was too late. She was already heading back down the aisle. When she saw me, she became embarrassed and confused. She’d had to make a split-second decision between personal safety and social consciousness. She didn’t want to seem prejudiced, but the danger signals were too numerous in this case.

I realized I was in a position to bridge the gap. So I decided next time I would act sooner. Sure enough, at the next station, a woman noticed the empty seat. I caught her eye and smiled. She came in and sat down, perfectly at ease. This woman was younger, also white, and maybe she would have sat down anyway. Her sense of what is dangerous may have been very different. Maybe my smile did have an effect. I’ll never know.

What struck me was how seldom we actually see each other. How many times do I make quick judgments based on someone’s appearance? How often do I take the shortcut and only see the mask? He’s black. She’s old. This one’s fat. That one’s short. But when I actually look someone in the eye, I see a person. I still may know nothing about them, but somehow we connect—if only just for a moment.

So I’ve started making an effort to greet people who cross my path. To see the person, rather than rush past. To smile. I’m not very good at it yet, but I keep at it.

If we are going to break down barriers and foster learning between groups, we need to start with what’s in front of us. We need to start by seeing each other as people.

What is your experience with seeing past the “masks” and connecting with new people?

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