Growing up Cuban American, with skin tone privilege, I heard many racist and homophobic remarks from family members and others within my culture. For example, it was common for some relatives to say negative things about Black Americans, but if the person was a Black Cuban, then that made it different somehow. "Better" somehow.
Same goes for homophobia. I recall around age 7, my uncle telling me I should not play with my friend, Pablo, since he was gay. He told me he "walked like a girl" and his mother "made him do the dishes" so he was going to be gay.
Everyone is a little racist, a little homophobic, a little classist, a little sexist. It's not as though one day we are racist and voilá, now we are not. One day we are homophobic and then suddenly, we are LGBTQ affirmative.
As a diversity trainer, I frequently get reactions for stating that everyone is a little biased, just like Mark Cuban did earlier this year.
We can see regular examples in the news: Paula Deen, Ronald Sterling, the women from the Dallas show, The Broadcast, etc.
Let me tell you a story about when I messed up.
Yep. Me, a "diversity specialist."
If we 'arrive' at knowing all about multiculturalism and diversity, then I 'should've known,' right?!
Generally, I am quite aware and don't make assumptions about how people identify regarding various identity variables, especially gender and sexuality. However, recently, I was at a professional meeting and made an assumption about someone's sexuality.
This was a lesbian woman, who I had talked with several times and I assumed she was straight. Yep, I sure did. I was so disappointed in myself when she said, "Wait, I'm gay." I was shocked.
I fell into a common assumption: assuming everyone is straight unless told different. I am a champion at this cause. At teaching others to not make assumptions.
And I did it.
So why does it happen so readily?
Well, research consistently demonstrates that we are products of our social environment. Even though I have educated myself thoroughly and practice diversity awareness, I have been influenced by what I have learned. And it can sometimes emerge.
Essentially, we all are or have been a little racist, sexist, classist... until we were more aware and worked on it. In social media these days, one hears people saying "he's a racist... she's a sexist, etc."
Saying that shuts everyone down and does not allow for understanding and dialogue.
It's a PROCESS of hard work, self-reflection and compassion.
If you were raised in U.S. society in the last 80 years, you were raised in what I call the "oppression trifecta." Most people have been exposed to institutional and cultural racism, sexism/heterosexism and classism.
That is, most of us grew up hearing negative things about darker skinned people, women, gay people, and poor people.
It is what it is. And it's hard to admit.
As a diversity trainer and psychologist, I've heard how classism, racism/colorism, and homophobia hurt others.
I will never forget a young male client talking with me about his shame when his family used food stamps at the grocery store. The sadness and shame he carried within. Or the female dark skinned Black Caribbean student who prayed every night to wake up light skinned. Or the young man who discussed being gay and hoping to pray the gay away.
Given that understanding differences is a slow process in our self-development, I believe there are three steps to move yourself along the continuum.
First, acknowledge that you were created within a biased world. That acceptance will hopefully help you get to the next step of compassion.
Second is to have compassion for yourself and others in their process. This cannot happen overnight. Learning about others is a process of obtaining knowledge and awareness.
And last, step out. Stretch yourself. Get out of your comfort zone. It's where things grow.
Growth happens in places that are a little uncomfortable. New and unknown situations cause us to think about life differently.
If you stay among the same people, with the same opinions and only like-minded, it is unlikely that you will stretch your perspective.
And who wants that? Life is about change. Not staying the same.