by Dr. Ken Larsen
Preconceptions are a sort of belief. They can serve us by guiding our behavior along familiar and desired paths. For instance, if I didn’t have a preconception of what was ahead of me when I took an off ramp off the freeway, I wouldn’t know what to do. If I didn’t have a preconception of what would happen when I flicked the light switch, I would be confused and in the dark. We need to have an idea of the results of the choices we make if only a belief in the probable outcome.
I’m going to tell you a true story of the power of preconceptions in the life of a good friend.
Fred was from Nigeria. We worked together as orderlies in the Child Psych ward of the University of Minnesota hospitals. We became good friends, having lively discussions about many things. I learned a lot about Fred’s family and culture. We often shared lunch in my apartment. Our discussions occasionally became heated, not in a rancorous way, but in a way that reflected our different cultural orientations. Yet, through it all, we remained friends.
The year was 1965. Fred wanted to drive to New Orleans to see the sights in that city. I expressed my concerns for his safety traveling in that part of our country at that time in our history. He dismissed my worries and took off on his trip. He made it down and back safely and had a wonderful story to tell of one experience he had in Mississippi. He stopped for lunch and walked into a small café. The manager quickly approached Fred and told him that he could not serve him. Fred put on a friendly smile and asked the manager why he couldn’t be served. The manager, unaccustomed to such a direct and simple question, pointed to the black cook back in the kitchen. “I can’t serve you because you are like that guy back there.” Fred, looking a bit puzzled, stated simply, “I am not a cook.”
The manager was so flustered by this response that he seated Fred so he could have his lunch.
To me this was a good example of preconceptions in motion. Fred was not indoctrinated with the prejudice that was prevalent during that time. He didn’t see himself as a second class citizen. He was unencumbered by the intimidation generated by the racial discrimination he faced. This freedom enabled him to evidently overcome the preconceptions of the café manager, who was able to treat Fred as just another customer.
I have noticed that many of us form our self image according to what we think others think of us. This starts in early childhood where the quality of our attachments shapes our personality. This continues throughout life driven by the hunger to fit in. In Fred’s case, he did not allow the preconceptions of the manager to shake his confident sense of himself.
I have thought of this often through the years. I think Fred’s sense of self enabled him to function in a mentally healthy and happy manner in spite of what was going on in our Civil Rights struggles. His dignity and self-confidence enabled him to live out the anthem of those days, “We shall overcome.”