I harbor prejudices about people like me: Black and living in the inner city. However, I wasn't fully aware of it until one night I hobbled on to the number one subway train on Manhattan's Upper West Side using my cane.
The car was packed with people scurrying home after a full day of work, just as I was doing. I held on to the pole as we came to a screeching stop. I nearly lost my footing. Just then, I felt a tap on my left arm; it came from a young black man, dressed like someone I was conditioned to fear. He was wearing the now notorious hoodie, his pants were hanging low, and he had an oversized t-shirt on and headphones in his ear. Had he have touched me on the street looking that way, I might have even snapped at him or immediately changed my posture to an aggressive stance to make him thinking twice about targeting me as a victim. But then, to my astonishment, he took one ear piece out, flashed a smile and asked if I'd like a seat. I politely declined and turned away. If I could've, I would've turned red with embarrassment. Instead, I looked around at the people dressed in professional attire, all of whom hadn't said a word and tried not to make eye contact with me, and thought about how unfairly I had judged one man and gave a pass to others who were deserving of my ire.
Unfortunately, the incident on the subway was not the only time I've been smacked in the face by my hidden prejudices. When I bought and then moved into my townhouse in a semi-gated community in Newark, New Jersey I was leery of people from the surroundings areas. I avoided going to the grocery store on the first and the 15th of the month when I thought residents living nearby would receive their government benefits. I didn't go to the movies at the new theater built by Shaquille O'Neal because I was certain there'd be a lot of talking and I wouldn't be able to hear the film. I stayed away from any location where large crowds were congregating because I didn't want to be a part of any spontaneous violence or argument that may break out. And, I certainly didn't engage anyone in conversation, because I feared I wouldn't find anyone, other than neighbors in my community, who shared any common interests with me. However, as time wore on, I began walking through the city and interacting with its residents. And, like everywhere else I've lived in my life, I found people I could relate to and those who went beyond my preconceived notions. More importantly, I learned everyone is different and deserve the same respect I'd expect.
I know what it feels like to be judged by others; not just because my race, gender or zip code but because of my disability. The autoimmune condition I suffer from, IgG4 related systemic disease, has left me walking with a cane and riddled with scars. I've seen people look me up and down, trying to figure out what's wrong with me or if I'm faking. I've seen looks of scorn and those of pity. I've often wondered why people don't talk to me so they can fully understand my condition. I suppose it's the same reason that I didn't confront my preconceived notions for so long; their prejudices far outweighed their curiosity or willingness to educate themselves about someone who appears different. By confronting mine, I've grown and risen above them, and I try to evaluate each person on his or her merit and not based on stereotypes.