Elephants: A Safari In Bias

We see what we want to see.

The day after the tragic shootings and deaths of law enforcement officers in Dallas, Texas, during the same week as the horrific shootings of two Black men in St. Paul, Minn. and Baton Rouge, La., respectively, when the nation was mired in shock, grief and polarizing divides, and conversations about bias were sprouting up in the media, I wore a casual navy blue shirt with a pattern of white elephants. There's nothing terribly remarkable about this shirt. I've had it for a little over a year, it's from Loft. I'm not entirely sure why I selected this shirt that morning, perhaps it was because it was hot as blazes outside in New York City, and I wanted to be comfortable. There was also probably an element of trying to find small joys in an otherwise overwhelmingly sad day. I love elephants, I think of them as my "spirit animal" -- they're large and unique, and kind, and loving, and aggressive when they need to be. At once, they blend in due to their relaxed energy and drab color, but c'mon -- they're elephants, you can't help but notice them! Anyway, I digress. Little did I realize that over the course of the day to follow, with the topic of bias already on my mind I would have three encounters that would trigger more consideration for the way in which we each see the world than any trope-ridden meme on social media ever could.

That morning I walked my dog to the coffee-wagon on the corner for my daily iced coffee. As I stood waiting for my drink an older white man, dressed in business attire, looked at me, gestured to my shirt, and said, "So? Are you a Republican?" It took me a second to catch on to his meaning. I'd like to think it was the lack of caffeine in my system during the early part of the day, but it was something else entirely, my bias. He was referring to the pattern of elephants and their being the iconography of the Republican Party. After a moment, I laughed with recognition and said, "Far from it!" He nodded, visibly disappointed, and that was that. As I walked away, drink in-hand, I couldn't stop thinking about how this encounter completely subverted my very simple thought process of selecting a shirt to wear that day. I saw "clean, comfortable, work appropriate, spirit animal," he saw "Republican." His question prompted me to consider how even simple choices can be interpreted differently than intended.

Later, around lunchtime, I was in the lobby of my office building waiting for an elevator. A woman seated in the area commented, "I like your shirt, it's so nice... the elephants." I thanked her, and told her that I'd had another encounter earlier that day regarding my shirt, and that I didn't realize it would be such a conversation starter. I recounted how the man had asked me if I was a Republican because of the elephant pattern. The woman snorted, and said, "ha, of course not" and then she quickly caught herself, realizing as the words were escaping her mouth that she doesn't know me, and was making assumptions. I told her that it hadn't even occurred to me, and it was confusing for me to think that donning practical "work clothes" was potentially fraught with political messaging. The conversation ended, my elevator came, and on I went with my day. We see what we want to see.

But wait, there's more. After work, I had an appointment with an aesthetician. She is Indian. And Hindu? Hello, bias? Is that you? She, too, complimented my shirt, saying "I like your shirt!" I said, "thank you," and briefly told her about the earlier encounters. She didn't have much of a reply, and the rest of the appointment proceeded, carried along by idle chit-chat. However, once again, I found myself confounded. She didn't seem to be acquainted with the "elephant = Republican" concept. Did she like the shirt because she's Indian, and Hindu? Or did she simply just like my shirt? Was she just making conversation? How was my bias informing my consideration of the compliment?

How could this simple wardrobe choice on a hot summer Friday be conjuring so many questions? We see what we want to see. In our closets, in our choices, in each other, and in ourselves.

As humans we seek connection with one another, and in the diaspora of daily life, sometimes those connections are forced upon us. We can try to find common ground with each other as a means to make these fleeting connections palatable. In doing so, do we project our own needs, wants, and desires onto the connection? Onto each other? Does our bias make it easier to try and make that connection? Or to dismiss one another? Can we use it to bridge the gulf between?

How can we use our inherent biases for the collective good? Instead of maligning bias, is there a way we can use it to start a dialogue? I'm beginning to think that the way to begin overcoming our inherent biases is to acknowledge them, and share them, and learn from them. To connect with others, or to find the disconnect.

Bias doesn't have to be basic.

We see what we want to see. What do you want to see?