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Thursday, July 14, 2005

Discrimination By Appearance

Andrea M., Braintree, MA


There is a full-length mirror in my bedroom. Often before I leave my home, I glance in this mirror. A quick look assures me that my appearance is okay and I go out the door to face the rest of the world. But do others see me as I see myself? How much of the real me does my mirror reflect?

Webster's Dictionary defines appearance as the "look or outward aspect of a person or thing ..." I would like to share some incidents where appearances were deceiving and could lead to discrimination.

One of my family's best friends is a person with Down's Syndrome. Last year, my family joined his family for a day of skiing. I was confident that this would be an easy sport to master. Was I wrong! When I fell, which was often, my friend with Down's Syndrome was there to encourage and assure me that I was not stupid or incompetent. He taught me to turn, stop, and even how to get up from my multiple falls. He was the best instructor; his patience, kindness, and willingness to help were unbelievable. Although an outstanding skier himself, he spent his day making mine enjoyable. I feel it was truly a privilege to see his many strengths, none of which would appear in the image portrayed in a mirror.

At the grocery store where I am a cashier, there is a lady who comes through my line every Saturday. By appearance, she is dressed very differently, walks unsteadily, and twitches repeatedly. To some, she is an object of joking and snickers, and I must say that, at first, I found her appearance disconcerting. Although she may appear unaware of this ridicule, I have noticed that she finds where I am working while avoiding those who mock her. Actually, this lady has taught me to look beyond appearance and see a lonely person looking for a friendly hello and acceptance.

Even the elderly, or perhaps most especially the elderly, are objects of discrimination because of their appearance. The other day I was in a nursing home. There was a white-haired lady sitting in a wheel chair with her head down, shoulders slumped and hands trembling. People hurried past her. Based on her appearance, it would be easy to judge her as an "old lady" with nothing much to do and less to offer. As I became acquainted with her, I learned she was fluent in three languages and even understood some of my Spanish - a very smart lady!!

Her eyes sparkled and her appearance even seemed to brighten as we discussed languages. What a loss of opportunity for those who judged her by her appearance as an useless "old lady" and ignored her.

I have heard it said that discrimination has many faces. I believe discrimination based on appearance may be even more subtle than, but just as devastating as its more blatant forms, based on ethnic, racial, or socioeconomic factors. A person's appearance, like a mirror, reflects only his or her outer self - an appearance which we need to look beyond. Our reactions to the deeper appearance of others may reflect the self not seen in the mirror - our inner self, our true self, our discriminatory or non-discriminatory self. ?

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