12/07/2012 01:43 pm ET Updated Feb 06, 2013

Getting to Know the 'Other'

Perception is a powerful thing.

Men wage wars on account of it: Iraq had WMDs.

Except, of course, it didn't.

Innocent people are hurt, in a myriad of ways, due to it.

Darker complexioned men with long beards and turbans are presumed to be Muslim and, therefore, can't be trusted. They are physically attacked, sometimes killed. As to perceptions, well, those men are actually Sikhs, an entirely distinct faith group.

And, as we are probably all aware, the question of trust is best left as an individualized, rather than group, assessment.

Similarly, Muslim women clad in any variant of hijab are perceived as un-American, unfriendly, duplicitous, uneducated, unwilling to assimilate, fundamentalist and foreign. Those blanket generalizations are wrong as well. But they have very real consequences -- on the street, at work, in school -- for those so perceived.

The power of (mis)perception.

Wasn't it Shakespeare who wrote in Hamlet that nothing is good or bad, but thinking that makes it so. Indeed, words eternal.

Let me share a personal experience that I draw upon from the past.

Maybe five or six years ago, I was walking in the mall with another woman -- we were both donning the Hijab -- when my shopping companion remarked, "Look at that girl! What is she wearing???"

I looked, and noticed the girl -- with dyed green hair and I suppose a punk style -- looking, too.

With a moment's reflection, I remarked, "She's probably thinking the same thing about us."

Maybe it's all those implicit, sometimes explicit, biases that keep us from collectively getting to know one another -- the false assumptions that automatically attach to "other" individuals on account of some aspect of their identities that seem different from our own.

If it were not for those markers and what we've learned or think we understand about what they represent, we might come to know that those "others" are not really all too different than ourselves.

It's not rocket science, and while I can at times be brilliant, I don't think this is one of those times. But if we are going to try to work against the hate, acrimony, misunderstanding and intolerance so rampant around us, we really need to start with what we harbor within our own hearts and minds.

It involves challenging ourselves to think and do things a little differently than perhaps what we are most accustomed to, with what we are most familiar with. It involves a process of self-identifying and confronting those stereotypes that we don't even recognize as stereotypes; overcoming implicit biases we may unknowingly and unwittingly harbor.

We should realize that sometimes, often times, we just don't have all the information we need to make an informed judgment about a person or a group of people. The best way to figure that out is by exposing ourselves to others with whom we may not ordinarily associate, and you know best who that "other" is to you.

The truth is, I may very well have shared more in common with that green haired, punk styled shopper than another whom I befriend simply because we're members of the same race or enjoy a shared faith and/or manner of dress.

Maybe, maybe not.

But we will never know unless we smile and give ourselves that chance. Happy holidays and enjoy an absolutely fabulous New Year!