When I first picked Devin* up, I thought I’d have nothing in common with this seemingly straight-laced white man who worked for a tech company. An hour later, we were eating Inn ‘N Out together and talking about everything from our country’s quick fix approach to handling emotions to how his brother’s coming out changed their relationship to finding a balance between impactful work and a job that pays the bills.
I never imagined I’d be talking to a LYFT passenger—much less a white male who worked in tech–about these sorts of subjects.
But there we were.
That our ride was long— SF to Palo Alto, then back up to SF (after the pit stop for munchies) — meant we had time to cover extensive ground.
Many of us carry preconceived ideas about what people in certain groups are like. We develop templates, then apply them to the indvidiuals we interact with on a regular basis. Given that a lot of our lives are structured around familiarity–we see the same people every day, go to the same jobs, walk the same roads–encounters that encourage us to challenge or expand these templates may be minimal. It’s easy to take one look at a person and write them off, perhaps unaware that we’re even doing it.
Driving different people in various cities and neighborhoods–from old ladies in rural towns to a black guy opening up about racial profiling in East Oakland to rich white techies in the Marina neighborhood of San Francisco–ensured a wide demographic with varied perspectives. And with this exposure came countless opportunities to challenge my ingrained biases and initial perceptions.
(The fact that it’s more difficult to mentally write someone off when you’re stuck in a car with them for 20, 30, 40, or however many minutes, also helps).
Our first impressions are often based off gut feelings and past experiences. Sometimes they turn out to be accurate. Other times they turn out to be accurate primarily because we expect this of them, therefore never open our minds to the possibility that we may be proven wrong.
Still other times, we move past our initial perceptions.
Passenger Devin (mentioned above) turned out to be just one of the many passengers who surprised me. Others included an impeccably dressed woman who’d spent her childhood homeless in England, an English teacher with a Seth Rogen esque appearance commenting on how childhood adversity affects academic performance, two partying police officers, and a baseball capped straight man unabashedly singing along to “I Hope You Dance,” (which delighted and surprised me almost as much as a flamboyant gay passenger’s rapping along with Ty Dolla Sign did).
It can go both ways; positive first impressions can also turn into negative ones. A woman passenger whom I’d gotten a gay vibe from threw me for a loop by making homophobic comments on the phone with her friend towards the end of our ride.
Sometimes I even found this applying to geographical places. That is, the biases I carried about specific cities or neighborhoods informed how I perceived many things that happened when I was in them.
In cities like Ukiah and Redding, perhaps I was quicker to think of the car who changed lanes without signaling as a selfish jerk who doesn’t like to share and probably voted for Trump–whereas I’d be more likely to assign benign intent in places like Berkeley and Arcata.
In Antioch, the car shakes as we pass over cracks and potholes in the road. Are there more here? I wonder, Or am I just more attuned to them because of prejudice? Perhaps the surrounding poverty draws more attention to them?
I loved it when the city itself gave an Eff You to my preconceived notions– surfboards on top of cars in the land-locked Central Valley; farm feed and fertilizer in the backs of pickups in cosmopolitan Los Angeles.
“I’m not gonna lie—I had a lot of preconceived notions coming into my visit here. But as it always seems to happen, whether it’s in the country, at a barbecue or a coffee shop, when you sit down with someone and listen to their stories, all those preconceived notions fall away,” said Kamau Bell on his visit to Appalachia for an episode of his show United Shades of Grey.
Over the months I came to find that renouncing predetermined judgments allowed me to traverse more compelling conversational territory. Paradigm shifting rides reminded me that often what we gain in the comfort of holding onto predetermined ideas, we lose in a potential deeper connection with another.
I invite you to come along with me on some of these rides! The full Inn ‘N Out guy story will be available in the second installment of this series.
The Partying Police Officers
“We’re police officers, but it’s our day off. No policing for us today,” says Manny.
I’ve picked Manny and Jacob up in a little town called Clarksburg, located along the delta just south of Sacramento. The two men have just finished lunch and are now headed to the Riverside Club, where they plan to do shots to celebrate their friend’s birthday.
The overturning of my first impression happens within a matter of seconds. First they tell me they are cops; the impression starts to form. Then they tell me they are drunk; a new impression covers over it.
Jacob and Manny have both lived in Sacramento their whole lives, and in addition to policing also drive Lyft on the weekends (which is interesting to me, as the two jobs don’t strike me as a common pairing). They say they usually drive in Davis because of all places in the Sacramento area, that’s where you can get the most business contained to one small grid.
A few minutes into their ride, Lyft Line adds a kid and his mom.
“What’s something you’ve always wanted to ask a cop?” the police officers ask the kid, once they’re settled in.
The kid takes a moment to think. Then:
“Can you give somebody a ticket for eating sushi while driving?” he ends up asking.
I’m glad he’s asked this, because I too am curious to hear the answer.
“If you can eat it without swerving Kid, we won’t,” Manny responds. “But if you’re ziggin’ and zaggin’ because of it, then we would. One time this young lady was driving with a giant burrito blocking her entire face, and she almost crashed her car into the center divider—so we pulled her over for that.”
“Wow,” the kid responds, eyes wide. “She coulda just waited until she wasn’t driving anymore to eat it!” he then insists.
The cops nod in agreement.
Once we’ve reached their destination (where a bull the color of red wine hangs above the entrance like a pinata), the cops thank me. One of them praises me for my “excellent driving.”
“You wouldn’t have gotten a ticket from me if I’d been on duty,” he says, giving me a congratulatory thumbs-up.
For the rest of the ride I listen to the kid and his mom talk about lemurs, and then they too are on their way.
The Bro-ey Youth Educator
Connor,* who opens the door to my car outside Rosa Mexicano with two large bags in tow, tells me he’s headed to the Sacramento Airport.
“Flying back to Wisconsin after visiting family here,” he says, midwestern accent instantly detectable. His somewhat pudgy physique, scruffiness, casual attire, and jovial demeanor lead me to immediately pin him for a football player Seth Rogen type.
I’m not sure I can muster the energy to feign interest in the outcome of the Kings game right now, I think. Or maybe he’d want to talk about beers or breweries. That I could do. Those are topics that interest me too.
Though how far will that get us? Possibly to the freeway entrance after I say I enjoy IPAs and Connor recommends a good hoppy one he recently tried at Track 7 Brewery. Maybe after I ask him about his preferred beers and he reveals his stance in the controversial “yes or no to sour beers” debate, we’ll have reached the Pacific Causeway.
But what about after that? Will be okay with silence, or take offense to it?
As it turns out, Connor and I talk about neither beer nor the Sac Kings. Instead, his revealing (while we’re paused at the final stop light before the entrance to the I-80 freeway) that he is a middle school English teacher at once introduces the topic of privilege within the education system and turns my initial appearance-based suppositions on their heads.
Underprivileged kids make up the principal demographic of the school Connor teaches at, where flakiness, procrastination, acting out and much of what the mainstream would label “behavioral problems” are common.
“One 8th grader didn’t seem to be trying at all,” he recalls.
He says this particular example ties into a common pattern he’s noticed.
“A lot of the kids at the school are used to people coming and going, even if they were on their best behavior. If no action or no amount of good behavior on their part would prevent the inevitable outcome, then why even try to put up a good front? Why put any effort in?”
We talk about how economic stability is only one of the many forms of privilege that make it easier to conform to our society’s rules. These other forms of privilege are more nebulous, less obvious, and even imperceptible to many people.
“I knew this one family who had a lot of money but the dad was never home,” he recounts. “And the mom relied on pain-killers to cope with her issues. She modeled that for the kids, so they learned that the way to solve problems is to turn to a pill when you’re alone, and when you’re around others, smile like nothing’s wrong.”
Connor then offers up a much different scenario (also one that had taken place at his school, a rare exception to the pattern) in which the family was financially underprivileged but (seemingly) emotionally stable.
“This other girl, her family didn’t have a lot of money but her mom was consistently there for her and her siblings at the end of the school day–and present with them. The kids could count on that. They had emotional reliability. Luxurious vacations were off limits and they had to be careful with every dollar they spent—but the kids seemed happy, stable, well-adjusted. No behavioral problems at school, no noticeable emotional symptoms or acting out or academic underperforming.”
I share with him that I grew up in Piedmont, a predominantly white, affluent town where it was easy to assume that a lot of defiant behavior or slacking in class stemmed from “white kid boredom,” upper-class ennui, or even spoiled disinterest.
How could we know what was really going on in any of their home lives though? I wondered. When all we ever saw was the small sliver they carried around with them in public?
** I feel it’s important to acknowledge though: If you’re rich and white and suffer from mental illness, you at least have the money and resources to afford treatment. Life will be difficult, but more navigable for you than it would be for a poor black person who is also suffering from mental illness. This isn’t to discount the struggles of any white person who grew up in adverse conditions, but merely to point out that intersectionality of oppressions is real and should be recognized.
Connor and I share a moment of silence, during which I look ahead to the airport signs, while he glances out the window onto the cornfields before we pull up to his terminal.
Though that day I hadn’t expected a discussion about psychological privilege with a white man—a football player-appearing one with Seth Rogen scruff and stature at that— the opportunity presented itself, and I welcomed it.
A Misconstrued Pedestrian
A driver gets angry at the sight of a white able-bodied man taking his sweet time in the crosswalk. Seems to be milking “pedestrian’s right of way” for all it’s worth, he thinks.
The driver displays far more patience with the old lady of color who’s using a walker to slowly cross the street.
Confronted later, after the seemingly able-bodied pedestrian angrily shows the driver his certificate “invisible illness” diagnosis (“Don’t judge me by my appearance alone,” he snaps):
The driver apologizes, feeling conflicted and confused, and not enjoying these feelings– not enjoying how nuanced and complicated our world is.
He realizes that to be truly good and pure and ethical required taking each situation on an individual basis. It required refraining from making any assumptions.
Doing this all the time sounded exhausting.
Benevolence came at the price of exhaustion. Be an asshole, or be perpetually worn down. Choose one.
Is there a third option?
Because maybe it’s not humanly, energetically possible to apply this lens to every human we meet in every situation we come into contact with.
Wouldn’t the third option, then, be to not cognitively invest? You don’t have to grant every person this consideration. Doing so would indeed be time-consuming.
Far more doable though is admitting you don’t know their life circumstances. Surrendering in this way this frees you. It also frees the other person from your judgment and dismissal.
We’re all free now. Time and energy preserved. Soul spared. Hurt feelings averted.
**Check back next week for the second installment of “First Impressions Overturned!”
Not every disability is visible— https://themodernsavvy.com/2019/10/18/what-people-with-an-invisible-illness-want-you-to-know/