I love people watching.
From a creative writing perspective, it’s fun to come up with stories about the lives of strangers. I usually start with the obvious observations about people’s hair, eyes, ethnicity or clothing. Then I move on to observing the way in which they hold things or drink their coffee (I used to do a lot of my people watching at cafes). I would try to guess their professions, imagine the type of music they listened to or even the type of cars they drove. Often these little visual cues were all I needed to build elaborate stories about the lives of total strangers, with little care as to whether I was accurate or not.
Recently, I agreed to help a friend with her annual garage sale. In between making change and making small talk with the various customers, I started analyzing the people who came to the sale. It was different than many of my previous customer service jobs, mostly because there was haggling over prices.
At one point during the day, one of the customers (a guy who could not seem to stay away because he came to buy stuff on four separate occasions), began to monologue about how garage sale goers were a notoriously cheap bunch, but he went further by pointing at Africans and Asians as being the worst of the lot. Being part Asian myself, I was offended by this–even though my white friend and I had actually been talking about this very thing the day before. Why did it offend me when an old white man, as opposed to when my white female friend, had said the same thing? I think the main difference was that I didn’t know the man personally, while I had known my friend for over twenty years. After all, it is often the intention behind what is being said that carries most of the meaning; I didn’t know the intentions of his words and I couldn’t necessarily trust that it wasn’t borne from ignorance or prejudice.
And, as I listened to this old white man, I smiled politely and said nothing. Perhaps I should have spoken up, but I wonder what that would have accomplished? Sure, I could’ve justified an angry verbal confrontation by saying I was educating him, but in all reality, would he have listened? Or would I be just another (insert “angry” minority stereotype here) who didn’t know how to take a joke? Worse still, because I am one of those people who can “pass” as white, was I in fact being a coward for not correcting his casual racism? And by the way, how fucked up is it that I’m the one questioning myself about this when he probably hasn’t thought about it since he said it? Sadly, I have no answers for these questions.
I have no insightful or ingenious ways of combating the ongoing, yet completely idiotic way in which race and racism is perceived and discussed. I’m not a hero, or a crusader or an activist. I’m a creative writer. And no, that is NOT a cop out, it is reality. And race is not the only area in which the world is screwed up. Classism, sexism, homophobia, religious and political shenanigans abound, and every last one of these things–and oh so much more–is important and needs to be addressed. But, as everyone who has ever witnessed me losing my temper has told me, “You have to pick your battles.” And my personal war is in changing and expanding the way in which I see the world. Because, in reality, my perceptions are really the only ones that I can reliably and honestly change.
Through the years of people watching, I learned to dissect the ways in which we make judgments about people and how those stereotypes are so easy to engage in even when we should know better. In many ways this simple, almost voyeuristic act helped me understand my own preconceived notions based solely on looks. After all, what can you actually tell about a person from the shade of their skin? Would that perception change if we were unsure of someone’s racial heritage? What about gender or, for that matter, gender-presentation? What about the fashion someone chooses to adorn themselves with? Should a woman wearing combat boots be taken any more or less seriously than a man wearing heels? What about an Asian woman with a Mohawk or a black man in a kimono? Is a soul-food place any less legitimate because white people work there? What about Hispanic people in a Chinese restaurant? And none of this even begins to address the issues of body-shaming, mental illness, or marriage equality all of which carry their own ingrained prejudices and out-dated attitudes of “right and wrong.”
As a writer, bearing all of this in mind, I do my best not to perpetuate stereotypes but also not cram my political views down peoples’ throats. It’s hard and, sometimes, downright impossible not to inject my own (and possibly flawed) version of morality and ethics. I am only Human after all, and an opinionated one at that. However, that’s also part of the challenge of writing, showing people an aspect of the world they’ve never seen or even imagined before. Science Fiction, Fantasy and even Romance hold up a mirror to show how the world is, but goes further by inviting you to imagine how the world could be. The world can be a crappy place sometimes, but remember that things used to be worse (there was once a time when cell phones, penicillin, and Freedom of Speech didn’t exist). It is in this vein that I believe that I can actually do the most good–by showing people a world full of possibilities, unlimited by the preconceived notions that we are sometimes unconsciously enslaved to.
In this shrinking world of ours, it is all the more important to really think about the things we think we know about each other. It’s not just about religion, race or sexuality, although these are still worthy topics of discussion, it’s really about relating to the other people on this planet as…well, People. No matter what you may think of someone’s choice of attire, hairstyle or politics, we are all still Human Beings underneath and it is this commonality that we must keep in mind whenever we are tempted to pass judgment on each other.
Now, while we do have to stop getting caught up on our differences, we must still learn to honor those differences too. Homogeny is boring and is really only suitable for milk. When I people watch, I like to think of the unconventional, the contradictory that still makes sense. The sophisticated-looking business woman who has a secret fascination with mixed-martial arts; the greasy mechanic who enjoys opera, or even the rap artist who holds a degree in microbiology; all of these seemingly incongruous ideas are entirely possible once you stop seeing the world through the narrow blinders of our local community. Go to another country, another state, city or hell just another neighborhood. As the Prophet Mohammed said in the Quran, “Don’t tell me how educated you are, tell me how much you have travelled.” Go out and experience the wondrousness of our shared yet varied Humanity, because sometimes it’s interesting to watch the way in which another stops to smell the roses.