Humans are odd creatures. Incredibly choosey. And incredibly picky when it comes to deciding who is part of our group, and who isn’t.
When deciding who belongs to us, we tend to exclude people who are different from us, thus ignoring that the world and its inhabitants are astonishingly colorful.
This tendency of ours — that we much too often ignore this amazingly broad spectrum of diversity that we humans naturally come with — is truly unfortunate as it can result in unnecessary pain and conflict that could actually have been avoided.
Based on skin color, native and foreign accent, clothes, customs, beliefs, and values, we determine (consciously and unconsciously) who can and cannot be part of our group.
Within our own group, where we share physical, character, and viewpoint traits with other group members, we feel comfortable and safe.
As a consequence, we have a tendency to rather help our own group members than outsiders.
Because outsiders are so different from us, and because we don’t really care about getting to know them, prejudice easily emerges.
Yet even for group members, it is ridiculously easy to turn into outsiders. The reason for this is that every group has a specific idea of “normal.” This category of being “normal” includes physical features like skin color or sexual orientation. The majority of the group determines which skin color or sexual orientation is “normal.”
The majority of the group additionally determines which social customs have to be followed in order to be “normal.” If we check the boxes of what the majority considers “normal,” the members of our group will accept us. But if we differ from this check sheet, we will be categorized as outsiders.
When you look at me, you’ll see a white woman, somewhat petite, with girlish features. Honestly, my entire life I’ve never felt treated inferiorly because of being a woman. But my white skin with its many birthmarks sticks out.
Redness takes forever to disappear. I also easily get a sunburn and have a high risk of developing skin cancer. This is why I’m the complete opposite of a sun worshipper.
As a consequence, some of my white group members find me too white.
How is this even possible? Well, it’s because white people follow this weird fashion of getting a suntan because they want to look young and athletic.
Of course, this is a contradiction. People with dark skin color are still discriminated against, but white people with bronze-colored skin are considered stylish.
White people even love it so much that they’ll expose themselves to the blistering summer sun and the suntanning studio — despite knowing that this will increase their chances for skin cancer, severely damage their skin, and speed up their skin’s aging process.
They are “willfully blind.” I, in contrast, have decided to protect my skin the best I can. In the summer I therefore stick out with my pale legs. And sticking out means attracting funny looks.
Sometimes I also get comments, such as, “Did you fall into the milk? Ha ha ha.”
In summer I suffer. I don’t mean the looks or comments. As a person who loves winter, I have a hard time bearing the heat.
When I was in China, I picked up the lovely custom of walking around with a sun umbrella. There I fit right in. As I stood on Tiananmen Square in Bei-jing with my umbrella, a young Chinese woman tapped on my shoulder, asking me to take a picture of her and her friends. She was completely shocked when I turned around and didn’t look Chinese. The umbrella had disguised me really well.
Yet back in the West, I couldn’t possibly walk around with an umbrella in the summer.
Or could I? My husband bought me a silver umbrella with UV protection. Being the only one with an umbrella in sunshine, I of course receive odd looks.
And sometimes my sticking out evokes comments, as happened at the Saturday flea market in Caorle, a small beach town at the Adriatic Sea in northern Italy. Among the many booths selling leather, clothes, shoes, model cars, watches, and electronic devices, sat an Italian salesmen who couldn’t stop himself from saying in broken German, “It’s not raining. What do you need an umbrella for?” I explained to him that it protected me from the sun. But he just shook his head, looked at me as if I had lost my marbles, and repeated, “It’s not raining.” As he kept repeating himself, he ironically sat in a camping chair next to his merchandise right under the roof of his tent — in the shade …
Fitting in is a powerful desire that’s deeply rooted inside of us.
We’re social creatures, and we want to be belong.
But people don’t make it easy for us.
They waste their time worrying about skin color or sun umbrellas. Unfortunately, too many people have a certain understanding of how a person should be. And this is very sad.
Very sad because the world is colorful and di-verse by Nature. Obviously, we don’t have to like everyone and everything.
But whether a person is black or pale, or whether a person uses a sun umbrella or not says nothing about the person’s character.
We really ought to rethink our “norms.” For in the end, all that counts is that a person is compassionate, honest, caring and kind.
Dr. Daniela Ritisch originally comes from Graz, Austria. She lives in Lock Haven and teaches German at Lycoming College.
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