Several years ago, a dear friend was visiting and wanted to go to a gun range. I am Chinese American. My friend was Turkish. The gun range was in Virginia, technically the American South. Neither of us had ever held a gun in our lives.
I was worried that the gun range may not be welcoming to people who looked like us. I feared that we would experience racism and meantally prepared myself. But what actually happened?
We showed up with no appointment and were wholeheartedly welcomed in the range. The man behind the counter spoke to us like equals even though we were beginners. He explained the safety rules, taught us how to shoot a gun, and let us into the range. Other folks in line who were looking to rent equipment waited patiently as he spent time with us.
Regardless of how you feel about guns, that day I learned a lesson about my own biases. I held the belief that people who shot guns were more likely to be racist. The respect that I received at the range caused me to realize that I was the biased one.
I visited a Donald Trump rally in 2016 in San Jose, to observe what it would be like. To my surprise, the amount of patriotic love and love for each other as fellow Trump supporters was through the roof. I'd never seen a sense of community like this in my life.
African American women and Hispanic women attending the rally appeared to be treated exactly the same as everyone else. They appeared to be treated with love, respect, and people listened to them and heard what they wanted to say. There was an unspoken bond between fellow Trump supporters that seemed to go beyond race, ethnicity, and background.
When I exited the rally, roving groups of anti-Trump college kids flipped attendees the bird, drove by screaming expletives, and more. Some people leaving the rally got hit with eggs and surrounded by hostile protest groups so they couldn't leave. One rally attendee got isolated by a mob and got his face punched in, knocked what seemed to be unconscious and got sent to the hospital. The verbal harassment was everywhere, but the physical violence was not very widespread (partly due to an enormous police presence).
Many protestors were also peaceful Hispanic people, decrying Donald Trump and his proposed wall. They stood holding signs peacefully supporting their cause, while some of the uglier violence happened nearby.
A Trump-supporting Hispanic woman I was talking with at the rally warned her son to hide the Trump gear as they exited the rally. This was to protect her son's physical safety. One doesn't want to leave the rally on a stretcher.
I've voted Democratic my whole life. I supported Barack Obama, I volunteered for Hillary Clinton, and I will volunteer for Joe Biden. I was told that violence at the Trump rallies would be by the Trumpers against the non-Trumpers. In places like Alabama, this might be true. But in San Jose, I saw exactly the opposite. And I still don't konw what to make of this.
I saw a comment on my friend's Facebook wall during the Black Lives Matter protests, in which he was stating that people should "support the rioters". For context, I am White, and he is Black. I replied to his comment by stating that people should absolutely be outraged about police brutality and should be protesting in the streets, but that I thought rioting was counterproductive.
He replied, saying (paraphrased), "As a White person, you have the privilege to be listened to by some people who might just not listen to Black supporters of BLM, and what you choose to focus on makes a difference. In the grand scheme of things, what matters more? The short term property damage caused by rioting, or the enormous repercussions of decades of systemic racism?"
At first, it was hard to accept the direct criticism - to be told that I shouldn't be voicing my opinion about the riots. It felt like he was shutting down my voice. However, this friend is someone I respect and trust, as I know him to be a kind and considerate person. We continued to talk about the issue, and after some time and reflection, I came to appreciate some really important points that he made.
He's absolutely right about my privilege to be heard. There are some people from my hometown in New Jersey who already distrust BLM, and aren't going to listen to a Black person's voice about police brutality. I stand a much better chance at having legitimate dialogue with those people. I'm also not a subject matter expert on civil disobedience, and I'm not in the shoes of Black Americans, so it's not really my place to tell them how they should or shouldn't be protesting. The discussion I *should* be having is about our country's history of racial inequity, and how we can help our society to change for the better.
I was raised Lutheran (LCMS), in a very Christian family, at a church that taught us the "uncomfortable truth" that it was our duty to share our beliefs with others and do what we can to convert them to Christianity. We were responsible for pushing our friends and neighbors to repent and stop living in sin. The pastors preached about the importance of "traditional family values" and had very little compassion for the poor, homeless, and addicted. My family transferred churches a couple times, but they were all like this.
I hated the hypocrisy and arrogance, and I was prepared to leave the church forever when I left for college. But when the Lutheran Campus Ministry (ELCA) reached out to me, I decided to attend once, just to try it. The difference was night and day. This was a place that really was filled with love. The leaders weren't afraid to tackle the difficult topics like LGBTQ rights, our non-Christian friends, and the unsavory parts of the Bible that tend to drive people away from Christianity. It felt like a place that really was open to everyone.
We did service and outreach projects for the homeless, and I realized that these people weren't lazy or stupid at all. I would have eventually learned this by reading more facts and figures, but I'm grateful I had the opportunity to befriend homeless people and listen to their stories. One of my strongest values became supporting economic policies that give the less fortunate what they really need to survive and thrive. I learned that "handout" was not a dirty word after all, and that in many cases, the most effective way to help people is simply to give them money to spend on what they need most.
In addition to the lessons I learned about the homeless and less fortunate, I learned that plenty of Christians care about equality and human rights for all. They aren't afraid to call out other self-identified Christians who spread intolerance and hate. And they are honest enough to acknowledge the validity of different religious beliefs.
I don't truly identify as Christian, but I've never felt more welcome than I did in that church community. My parents are still Christian, but they saw my experience and realized they did not support our old church. They shopped around until they found a church that was kind and tolerant, even though it meant switching denominations.
In summary: I un-learned the harmful things I'd been taught about the homeless and less fortunate. I learned that while some Christians may be selfish and hypocritical, many are open-minded and caring toward all kinds of people. And I learned that religious parents are fully capable of choosing humanity over dogma.
I think life experiences more than anything change one. I think we are on the same page, I don't want Trump and am not a single issue voter. I never used to understand that- I used to always think I was clearly pro- choice. I just had a baby 6 months ago- and while I still would like laws to be pro-choice the experience has made me uncomfortable with abortion in a way I never used to be- the little one just feels so precious to me- I can't imagine life without her. Yet I still feel uncomfortable telling someone else what to do- but even the thought of her hurting herself in anyway is painful to me- so I can't even imagine wanting such a thing.
Decades ago in high school, the school newspaper came out with a feature on LGBTQ students. I was surprised to learn that a girl in my chemistry class identified as bisexual.
At the time, I hadn't really considered different sexualities. As a female, my initial reaction was fear. "What if she has a crush on me?" I mentioned this fear to a friend who pointed out, "What if a guy who you're not interested in has a crush on you?" That helped my brain reframe and deal with the concern.
As the concept became more familiar to me, and years passed, in a super ironic twist of fate, I found myself attracted to both men and women. I realized that I was bisexual!
I moved to the US when I was 22. Before then, most of the media I followed was quite islamophobic. As a result, I had an image of most Muslims being radical and militant towards people of other faith or atheists. This view changed in a second, when I became friends with a fellow MIT student, who is a deeply religious Muslim. She is one of the most kind, good-hearted and wonderful people I know. Then, of course, I realized pretty quickly that she was not really an exception and I met many other Muslim people, who were absolutely wonderful and completely tolerant to other cultures and religions. This experience made me realize that it's much easier to feel aversion towards an abstract group of people than a particular person belonging to the same group.
Two years ago, I was sitting in my car waiting in a long line for a toll booth. When I finally reached the booth, the toll operator told me that the person in front had paid for me and I was free to go. I was so shocked. I didn't need the 5 USD. I would never know who it was. I was worn down by the traffic and the long line, and that gesture was surprising and incredible. It really touched my heart. I committed to pay the toll for the next car for life.
The first time I tried to pay forward the toll, I kept looking into my rear view mirror to see who I'd be paying for. In the mirror, I saw a tired looking Uber driver. I felt satisfied that my money would be going to a good place. But before we got to the booth, the Uber driver had changed lanes and now there was someone else behind me. She looked upset and was gesturing animatedly in a conversation with her passenger. The word "diva" popped into my mind. I wasn't thrilled to be paying for a "diva" and was definitely judging her by what I was seeing in the mirror. I paid the toll for both of us and left.
Thirty seconds later I was surprised to hear a honk. It was the "diva" and her friend waving at me from the next lane! She looked bright and happy. She no longer looked like a diva to me. This was a valuable lesson, that I shouldn't judge people so quickly... I don't know their story.
The other lesson in this toll situation for me, is that altruism doesn't need to be optimal. I normally subscribe to the "effective altruism" school of thought, where we try to maximize the impact per dollar donated. Effective altruists typically donate to fund malaria bed nets (1 life saved/$3K USD) or deworming pills. By effective altruism logic, paying the toll for a tech worker like me would be a joke. However, in this case that initial 5 USD was really compounded because it touched my heart, and I will be paying that forward for the rest of my life. Who knows what other hearts it will touch?