“I don’t see color; I just treat everyone as humans.”
I hear this statement all the time. I treat everyone as humans. While it is a perfectly appropriate response — after all, I’d prefer not to be treated like a dog, a pancake, a rug, a chair, an apple, etc. — it just doesn’t make sense to me. Responding that we should just treat everyone as humans often implies that “I treat everyone as just the same.”
Treating me like a human, on one hand, is comforting. I’m happy to know that you will treat me as a thinking, intelligent, moral, able, evolutionarily advanced creature on this planet.
Treating me like a human also ignores all of the uniqueness that makes me who I am. After all, my identity has been shaped by all the unique experiences I have had. At the most general level, I am a mother, wife, and sister. On a slightly more defined level, I am young mother, a working-out-of-the-house wife, and a sister in a large family. On an even more defined level, I am a young mother of three, a working-out-of-the-house wife in an interracial marriage, and a sister in a large family affected by cancer. Each of these levels can be broken down even more. And, each of these levels and these experiences have shaped who I am. Simply treating me like everyone else doesn’t speak to the levels that impact how I see the world, how I make decisions, and how I approach situations.
The other day, I hosted a workshop for a group of students. And, as expected, this topic came up again. In this context, though, a student asked about the issue of hyphenating the American identity. “Sometimes, people want to be American. But, then those same people say they want to be known as Asian-American or Chinese-American. Why can’t they just choose to be American?”
I asked the group to look around the room. In this room, at this particular college, I asked the group if they could safely assume that everyone here was from the same college. “Yes.” We agreed that everyone in that room was a college student. Now, if I asked the group to introduce themselves, it would be unlikely that anyone would start off their personal introduction with “My name is ___, and I am a XXXX student.” We don’t have to say we are “XXXX students” because it’s assumed given our location, the time of day, the way people look (average college aged in the room), etc. I then pointed out that there were 4 men in the room and 20 women in the room. I asked, “Is it safe to assume that there are situations in which you are treated differently at XXXX College because you identify as a man or a woman?” Students responded with examples of residence hall room/roommate assignments, bathrooms, single-sex sports teams, etc. While it is my hope that you are all treated equally in terms of encouragement for achievement, opportunities made available to you, classes you can get in to, leadership positions you can apply for, etc., the truth is that you experience some things differently based on how you identify your biological sex.
Now, I’m going to take the leap and assume there is more to know about you than just “you are a XXXX College student” and “you are male or female.” I’m also going to take the leap and assume you want to be known as just “the girl in the North Face jacket” or “the guy with the hat on.” There is probably more to you than just what you are wearing. I’m going to assume that you all have a first name, a last name, and maybe even a middle name. For some of you, your name is really important to you. If your name is “Jennifer” or “Matt” or “Lindsey” or “John”, I’m going to assume that you aren’t exactly the same as the other “Jennifer” or “Matt” or “Lindsey” or “John” in the room. In fact, if we were in a room full of people with those names, you might want to distinguish yourself by using your last name or a nickname. We begin to see how, yes, we all started out with something that we had in common — being XXXX College students — but that there was more to you than just that piece of information.
Let’s assume you are a XXXX College freshman. On the campus or at a College event, you might choose to identify yourself as “Hi, I’m ____. I’m a freshman.” Simply saying you are a freshman means something here on our campus. Yet, say you went back to visit some teachers in your old high school. You are approached by a new teacher in your high school, and you introduce yourself as “Hi, I’m ____. I’m a freshman.” That context means something at that high school. The teacher might very well assume you are a freshman at that high school. It would be important for you to say, “Hi, I’m ____. I’m a freshman at XXXX College.” Or, maybe you wouldn’t even mention XXXX College. Maybe you would say, “Hi, I’m ____. I graduated from this high school in 2009.” You as a person haven’t changed just in your visit; but, the way you describe yourself has changed based on your surroundings and the context of your identity.
You are still treated like a human while visiting your high school, however your experiences and the way you identify yourself take on new meaning.
Now, let’s look at the experience of attending college. As students, you have chosen to go to college. Likely, you have a reason for going to college. At it’s most basic level, you must be assuming that there is something different about the experience of going to college vs not going to college. I’m also going to assume that you, in fact, believe that people who do go to college and people who do not go to college are humans. I would hope that all people — whether they go to college or not — should be treated as humans. And, yet, there is something different about your experience. Likely, if you were applying for a job, you’d want me to consider the fact that you went to college and that the other applicant did not go to college. You’re both humans, yet there is something different about your experiences. I’d even guess that you’d want me to treat your application different from the application of someone who did not go to college. I certainly would hire the best person for the job, and you’d probably want me to take into account that there is a benefit I get from you as a college graduate.
The list of examples and definitions can go on and on. At the heart of it is this: we should always treat one another with respect, courtesy, and as if we are intelligent and wise. No matter if you went to college, if you are male or female, if you are black or white, or if you are tall or short — we are united by the common bond of humanity. Yet, within our own identities, we have a diversity of experiences that have shaped who we are, decisions we make, and situations we encounter. To only treat one another as generic humans means we fail to see the other layers of who we are and who we have become. There is certainly nothing wrong with wanting to make the more important layers of our identity visible to others. And, there is nothing wrong with treating one another as if the layers they share have impacted who they are as people.
Treat me like a human who is made up of many layers. See what makes me different from you. See what makes me the same as you. And, together we can make our world a much more interesting place.