When I was growing up, we had this one particular picture book. I don’t remember the title, but I remember this one illustration of a man at the banquet, putting food into the pocket of his coat, saying “Eat, coat, eat.”
The story is about the effect that appearance has on how we treat people. A man goes to a banquet wearing old, raggedy clothes, and he’s turned away. When he cleans himself up and puts on elegant, expensive clothes, he’s invited in and welcomed warmly. When his puzzled host asks why he’s putting the food in his coat pocket, the man replies that the host must really have invited his coat to the banquet, not he himself.
A few years ago, I tried this thought experiment that made me realize the unconscious assumptions that I was making about people who were different from me.
I was in court one afternoon, watching the judge deal with some name changes and one anti-harassment matter before the start of small-claims court, where I mediate pro bono.
The woman in the anti-harassment case was asking for a temporary restraining order against a neighbor. She sounded angry, indignant, and distraught as she told the judge about this neighbor who was harassing her, and who had broken into her house and stolen some things. She told the judge that this happened during a year when (she said) her mother died, her sister was ill, and her son was shot and killed.
Can you tell, from how I wrote that last paragraph, that I didn’t quite believe this woman? I thought she was wrong about the neighbor breaking in, that he hadn’t broken in but she wanted to be able to say that he had, or that someone else had broken in and she wanted to blame it on the neighbor. I thought she was exaggerating her stories about her sister being ill and her mother and son dying. Her son was probably in the wrong place at the wrong time.
Then I wondered, why don’t I believe her? Was it because she was poor? Her clothes were plain and worn, and her jewelry looked cheap. Was it because she didn’t express herself well? She wasn’t articulate, and she kept repeating the same things over and over. Was it because she was black? Because she was.
So I asked myself, what if she was middle-class? or rich? What if she dressed well and had elegant jewelry, spoke clearly and precisely? What if she was white?
Oh my God.
I found myself believing her! That the neighbor did break in. That her mother did die, and her sister was seriously ill. That her son wasn’t some gang member, but an innocent victim. I felt more compassionate towards the woman, that she was another human being, whose pain I could understand.
That simple thought experiment showed me how many assumptions I was making about this woman, and about her situation. It was a revelation. Now I do this a lot: if I find myself making assumptions about whether some particular person is telling the truth about their experiences, I ask myself what I’d think if that person was of a higher social class, spoke really well, and was white. I always get a new perspective on the person and their pain.
To go back to the story about the man at the banquet, I’m trying to look at the person, not the clothes.
I got the idea to try this from an NPR story (Study: Whites Think Black People Feel Less Pain), about how if we think someone’s been hardened by life experiences, we assume they can deal with more pain or that they feel it less intensely. Apparently, our perception of other people’s pain can be influenced by the person’s attributes: their socioeconomic status, their race, their gender, etc. And it’s completely involuntary and unconscious.
If you’ve ever tried this kind of thought experiment, what happened?
About the image at the top of the post – it comes from a version of the story called The Hungry Coat. You can read it here, under the name A Guest for Halil.