As a doctoral student and therapist, I constantly come across challenging material. I have learned that my coursework is far more than a checklist of assignments, papers, and projects. It enhances my practice by exposing me to new ideas. It keeps me inquisitive, and it fosters a thirst for knowledge that can never quite be satisfied.
A professor recently assigned a project that completely changed my perspective on cultural competency and professional responsibility. My cohort was asked to write an in-depth paper about a group we felt resistant toward. For instance, some had biased perceptions about specific religious groups, so they attended the religious services and even participated in them. Some lacked knowledge regarding particular cultures, ethnicities, and identities, so they attended community events specific to a population. We were all asked to pinpoint an area of discomfort, and then lean into it.
After reflecting upon this unique assignment, I realized that I had very limited experiences with the transgender and genderqueer community. Though I proudly considered myself to be an ally, I discovered that I actually had very little knowledge regarding the experiences that are unique to this population. How could I adequately call myself an LGBTQ ally when I was so unaware? I decided to attend a local transgender and genderqueer support group, and my eyes were instantly opened.
I have never been so uncomfortably aware of my own cisgender privilege and so humbled by these individuals’ sheer courage to stand up and proudly, bravely be who they were. I have never thought about what it would feel like to be perceived as a gender that does not align with who I am or how I feel. I have never thought about the exorbitant expenses associated with hormone therapies or gender reassignment surgery. I have never lost a job because of my gender status. It is not difficult for me to find clothes fitting my body type. I have never experienced the backlash from family, friends, or government employees when trying to legally change my name to one that is better a fit for me.
I still have a lot to learn about the transgender community, but I have been permanently and positively impacted by this support group.
In light of recent events surrounding hatred, we must all ask ourselves to examine the ways in which we conceptualize other people. Are we actively stretching ourselves to grow and think rationally and critically, or do we fall prey to the stereotypes and beliefs that are tossed back and forth around us? Are we intentional about our media intake, or are we impacted by our screen time more than we think we are? When you look around you, do the people in your circle look, think, and act like you do, or are you surrounded by variation?
When we expose ourselves to those who are different from us in age, gender, class, ethnicity, and beyond, we develop a richer understanding of the world. We are inspired to evaluate our circumstances differently. We question oppressive systems. We gain a more complex concept of our privilege. All in all, understanding others helps us better understand ourselves.
Open-mindedness is not a singular, stagnant state. It is a mindset that takes effort and practice. It feels natural at times, and it is completely challenging at others. How can we move away from judgment and scrutiny? How can we put ourselves in others’ shoes, or just listen when their experiences are far from our own? How can we lean in to our differences rather than let discomfort dictate our lives?
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