Cultural Shortcuts

There were several patches of woods in my husband’s neighborhood that – over the course of his childhood – developed trails as kids wore the same paths creating shortcuts to school or to other parts of the neighborhood. So, after some time, new kids exploring the neighborhood had a much easier time figuring out their way through because of the paths worn by the kids before them. However, if something new popped up in the area – like a convenience store, they would need to consider the best way to get to that new location and start new trails all over again. Taking the old trails to the school or to the other parts of the neighborhood would never get them to the source of the candy and soda. They had to be deliberate and plan every trip so they would tread the same path in the same area and eventually form a new trail by use of several kids seeking out sugary treats.

So, as a culture, we often don’t realize the shortcuts we’re using were created by generations before us. We hear something on the news and our brains follow the paths created by the culture to get to the shortcuts designed generations before ours. Here’s a few examples:

HEADLINE: YOUNG WOMAN RAPED
What was she wearing? Was she drinking?

HEADLINE: YOUNG MAN RAPED
Oh my god. That’s terrible. That poor man.

Or with another type of news cycle

HEADLINE: UNARMED BLACK TEEN SHOT BY COP
What was that teen doing wrong?

HEADLINE: UNARMED WHITE TEEN SHOT BY COP
What a tragic mistake. How did this happen?

Or with another:
HEADLINE: BROWN MAN KILLS A LOT OF PEOPLE
Terrorist!

HEADLINE: WHITE MAN KILLS A LOT OF PEOPLE
Lone wolf with mental health disorder.

These shortcuts were created by a culture that thinks less of black bodies and female bodies. And as we start to feel an awakening of sorts to systemic racism and rape culture, we have to start creating different shortcuts to different destinations. AS A CULTURE. This is not just about retraining our brains to ask different questions, although that’s our personal responsibility. This is about expecting journalists to change the way they present news. EXAMPLE: Let’s not use mugshots as the photo for a victim in a news story when the previous arrest had nothing to do with the story itself. This is about asking the entertainment industry to change the way they tell stories. EXAMPLE: Not all actors from the middle east want to play the role of TERRORIST. And sometimes a character can be black, but being black has nothing to do with the story you are telling. You don’t have to save the casting of people of color only when their skin color is a plot point.

My kids flinch when they hear the word “retarded” – all three of them. They can not believe people my age use that word so casually and it makes them embarrassed. I try to explain to them that we’ve used that word casually so often that the path in our brains is easy to take. For me, it took awhile to retrain myself not to grab that word when I meant “stupid” or “dumb.” The path to that word is now overgrown in my brain so it’s not an easy one to take when looking for words to use, but it took awhile. That path never existed in their brains so they find it so perplexing that it exists in anyone else’s.

We have to recognize that change is not easy. Not personal change and not cultural change. We have to find ourselves on the paths to rape culture instincts when we hear ourselves asking questions like, “But, was she flirting with him?” – and we have to back up and take a new path. When we see people using WIC vouchers or the EBT cards and assume they’re lazy and milking the system – we need to back up and take a new path. When we hear a young black man is a felon and assume they’re a criminal and not take time to consider that our system is such that many poor young black men choose plea bargains even if they’re innocent because they feel like the odds are stacked against them in court cases – we need to back up and take a new path.

We have to start with our own misguided shortcuts but we also need to expect more from the culture around us.