What Volunteering In The South Taught Me About My Own Prejudice
This year I decided to participate in a spring break program called the Collegiate Challenge, which offered students the opportunity to partner with our university's chapter of Habitat for Humanity and spend a week building houses for low income families. This year’s build site was Lake Sumpter, Florida — a small town in central Florida, about two hours outside of Orlando. Although I had been to Miami once before, this was my first experience in a more rural, southern environment and, to be honest, I went into the trip with a lot of assumptions and prejudices.
Before I traveled to the state, I knew that Donald Trump had won the Florida primaries and that the governor of Florida had endorsed him. Since Donald Trump has expressed many views that I (and plenty of others) see as racist and xenophobic, I worried that I would encounter people with similar perspectives. Beyond Trump, my awareness of the legacy of racism, sexism, and general discrimination against minorities in the south also made me a little nervous about reactions I might receive as a multiracial woman. I soon learned, however, that I shouldn't have been so quick to make such blanket assumptions about southerners.
Although I spent the majority of my time in Lake Sumpter with my friends from my university, I also spent a lot of time with the supervisor of our build suite, a man I'll call "Mitch." At first glance, Mitch seemed to be a quintessential southern man: He was about 60 years old, with white hair and skin that had turned red under the sun. He wore steel toe boots, jeans with a T-shirt, and a faded baseball hat with a Miller Lite logo on it.
On our first day of volunteering, Mitch rattled off a list of tasks to do on the construction site in a husky voice. I raised my hand to volunteer to work on the roof. He raised his eyebrows in disbelief, and asked "YOU want to work on the roof?" His expression was a combination of amusement and doubt. I bristled and replied, "Yes, I have worked on a roof several times before." Mitch reluctantly agreed to have me work on the roof along with a guy from my university. I immediately took his reaction as sexist and was annoyed that he picked a guy to go on the roof as well instead of another girl.
The roof had been tiled and our task was to put in wooden boards of the gable, which involved lifting heavy wood, drilling, and hammering. "All right lady!" Mitch said to me before handing me the power drill. Again, I was annoyed. No one has ever called me "lady" in my home state of California. I was determined to prove myself, but struggled to use the powder drill, which was heavy and loud. I worried that Mitch would make me do an easier job like the painting that most of the other girls were doing.
But he didn't. Instead, Mitch was patient and showed me how to use the drill properly. When I made a mistake he would happily say I just needed to make it "more better" and that "from the highway" everything would look beautiful. He ended up alternating between calling me "lady" and "mad driller."
After Mitch got over his initial shock that I volunteered to work with him on the roof, we developed a mutual respect despite our different backgrounds. I was less than pleased with the words he often chose to describe me, but my discomfort faded when I realized that he was supportive of my work and respected my efforts to help build the house, just like him. Although I had initially harbored my own prejudices against Mitch, and assumed that he would have sexist and racist prejudices against me, his actions were ultimately respectful and kind. Mitch exceeded my expectations even further when he mentioned "that crazy Donald Trump."
Although I always try to be aware of discrimination and sexism, this experience taught me how important it is to recognize my own prejudices and overcome them. I still think that words matter and that they can perpetuate harmful stereotypes, but it is also important to acknowledge a person's overall intentions and value those that are positive.
More articles by Category: Feminism, Misogyny
More articles by Tag: Activism and advocacy, Sexism, Gender bias, Discrimination