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Discover others: Our assumptions reveal the boundaries of our experience
Part 4 in "Explore Assumptions" series
Years ago, I befriended “Mitchell,” a young Black man who grew up in the American South and moved to Seattle for work. Although Mitchell worked only five blocks away from the International District, the commercial district home to many Asian-owned businesses, he admitted he didn’t know anything about the nearby Asian community. He was curious.
I introduced Mitchell to Korean BBQ and Vietnamese sandwiches and we toured the Wing Luke, a pan-Asian American museum. He described how many African Americans in the South referred to those of Asian ethnicity as “Chinese.” He was surprised by the diversity within the Asian community.
A few months after we met, Mitchell proudly told me that he’d corrected himself after referring to an Asian acquaintance as “Chinese” to another coworker without knowing that to be true. He had said, “I actually don’t know if he’s Chinese.” We both celebrated his ability to recognize his assumption, correct it and demonstrate a willingness to openly admit his mistake.
I didn’t expect Mitchell to be aware of differences among the diverse Asian community. I was impressed that he wanted to learn.
We’ve all made factually incorrect, wrong assumptions. Some of these are socially acceptable while others are not. Assumptions show us the boundaries of what we know or get exposed to. They teach us to become more aware of what else there is to know.
Mitchell became curious about Asians after realizing not all Asians are Chinese.
We make assumptions about what we believe we do and do not know. Below are a variety of assumptions I’ve observed people make about others. Ask yourself if you’ve made these assumptions too.
Assumptions about work that differs from our own
Ask yourself: What do you think about other people’s work?
These are usually socially acceptable assumptions.
Generally, people feel comfortable making assumptions, even negative ones, about other people’s work. Perhaps we feel safe doing this because work is often a professional choice.
One of the objectives of the cross-sector fellowship I created and described in the first essay of this series was to explore why silos across different sectors exist. We spent time understanding the assumptions made about different sectors. Early on in the program, we invited people to write down assumptions they held about people working in other sectors and the assumptions others have about their sector.
Here are some of the negative assumptions and sector stereotypes people shared:
Nonprofit organizations are: always asking for money, inefficient, under-resourced, overworked and underpaid, holier-than-thou, self-righteous.
Government entities are: mediocre, wasteful of resources, slow, bureaucratic, risk averse, job security, politics take priority, and stagnant.
Private/Tech companies are: profit-driven, greedy, arrogant, detached from the community. Also, they lack ethics, scruples, and/or values.
The fellowship started with community interviews that gave fellows an experiential way to examine their assumptions by putting them in direct proximity to those in different fields. Most the fellows appreciated having their assumptions challenged.
One of my favorite anecdotes includes two female fellows who were assigned to interview the local producers of a national beauty pageant.
The two fellows described how they now understood “pageants to be a tool of female empowerment.” They learned the producers were small business owners, not an anonymous corporation.
Before their interview, the fellows wrote down their assumptions. They wrote down things such as “beauty pageants don’t have anything to do with the community ” and “pageants objectify women!” Their negative assumptions are common, even socially acceptable in many circles.
The fellows’ assumptions were debunked when they actually talked to the pageant operators.
Even socially acceptable assumptions should be explored, because “acceptable” is relative.
Assumptions about those we don’t identify with
Ask yourself: Have you ever made an assumption about someone whose race, gender, etc. differed from your own?
It often takes a lot of coaching and modeling to get people to share these assumptions. Sometimes people are only willing to share after others start.
“I assumed a poet was a man because the poem was so violent. Then I discovered the poet was a woman,” one woman said. Assumption: Men are violent, women are not.
“Because this person had a Spanish last name, I assumed he would be Latino. He worked in venture capital, so I also assumed he was going to be fair-skinned. I instead he was very dark-skinned,” said a woman of color. Assumption: venture capitalists are white.
“I thought a colleague was white and I made statements that assumed her whiteness in relation to our work. I found out she was Middle Eastern and was white-presenting,” said a man of color. Assumption: Those who look white identify as white.
I remember when an acquaintance introduced me over email to two tech startup founders. I arranged to meet them at a local café. When I stepped in, I looked around and thought they hadn’t arrived yet. And then two middle-aged Black men approached me and introduced themselves as the startup founders. It was only at that moment that I realized I was looking for someone who was either white, Asian or young. I assumed that’s what tech startup founders look like.
Oftentimes we don’t even realize we have an assumption until we’re confronted with it.
Assumptions about those we identify with
Ask yourself: Have you ever made an assumption about someone who you share a social Identity with?
Sometimes we assume we share experiences with others because of a shared social identity without realizing the nuance within that group. “Social identity” refers to mental, social, or physical characteristics that we identify as having and others also identify us as having. This could include race, gender, sexual orientation.
Assumptions we make about others can be similar to those made about us. When I am not given the gender of a leader, I often assume a leader is a man, even though I’m a female leader. I make the same assumptions about young-looking, Asian women that are made about me. I often assume they are students or early-stage professionals. A Harvard Implicit Bias t confirmed this. I scored a slight bias against women and Asians.
Here are some other examples:
“I assumed an Asian American woman I talked to also had Asian parents, as I do. I tried to joke with her by saying, ‘You know what it’s like to have Asian parents’ only to have her cringe and then later reveal that her parents were white and she was adopted.” Assumption: Individuals and their parents share the same ethnicity.
“I often assume other people are straight. People often assume I’m straight. When I say I’m married, they ask about my husband,” said a lesbian. Assumption: People are heterosexual.
Sharing a social identity doesn’t prevent us from making the same assumptions of others that others outside that community make about us. Even when we are intimately aware of nuances within our own groups, there are still opportunities to be exposed and to learn more.
My point is to explore the assumptions that we have about those in our social identity group, not to try to censor ourselves. Sharing our assumptions is a risk that can sometimes lead to more conversation. I’ve had Asian people joke with me about having Asian parents. It taps into a shared sense of camaraderie.
Learning that we are wrong can make us appreciate the differences even between those we identify with.
Ask yourself: Think about a time you were surprised to learn something. What assumptions did you have that caused you to be surprised?
While we are theoretically aware, there are many things we don’t know. Confronting our assumptions about others makes us aware of what we don’t know. Recognizing them helps us identify what we don’t know and what we can still learn.
Through my friendship with Mitchell, I realized how little I knew about the American South and how many assumptions I had about the people there. We both got to learn from each other.