I was 12 years old when we moved to Pensacola, Fla., and I was enrolled in a brand new school. It was my seventh school so far if you counted kindergarten, so I was accustomed to being the new kid.
But I had never experienced anything quite so different. I had always been in middle class suburban schools where almost everybody looked and acted like me. But when we moved to Pensacola, we lived on the beach — and the beach kids were bused all the way to the inner city, where nobody looked like me.
Academics were terrible and the classes were way behind where I’d been in my previous schools. Mostly, though, it was a different culture. There was only one other white boy in all of the seventh grade. Almost every student in the school was black and they came from homes and neighborhoods very different from mine. It was a culture clash.
On one of my first days at the school, a knot of kids gathered around me in a hallway to make fun of my pants.
“Why you wear flood pants, white boy?” they taunted.
I had no idea what they were even talking about. What in the world were flood pants? I just knew from their jeering that I was the butt of their jokes. I was humiliated — and I would have done anything to blend in and be left alone.
I’ve been thinking today about all the ways in which we judge each other — and that triggered this old and painful memory. I quickly learned what “flood pants” were and I tried not to wear things that would make me the center of ridicule. I didn’t know it at the time, but it was one of my first open encounters with the ways in which culture uses cruel judgment to enforce conformity.
You will dress this way.
You will talk this way.
You will educate your children as we do.
You will live in a house that looks like our houses.
You will learn to think as we think — or we will ridicule you and judge you mindlessly. We will make fun of you. And if you still refuse to change, we will ostracize you.
We learn to have opinions about other people because we quickly find that they have opinions about us. It becomes second nature to have opinions about how other people should dress and talk and act and live. Without even thinking about it, we gravitate toward those who look and act as we do. And even among “our people,” we constantly keep judging.
We judge what your romantic relationship should be.
We judge whether you do the kind of work we approve of.
We judge whether you dress your children in ways we approve of.
We judge how you interact with your family.
Without even thinking about it, we judge those of our group — our friends — for how they act in the world. Some people are more lenient. Some are more judgmental. But all do it to some extent. We know how you should act — and “the right way to be” is invariably the ways we have been trained to be.
I’d like to tell you that I don’t care about the ways in which people judge me, but that would be a lie. I try not to care, but the judgment of others wounds me deeply, even when I know I’ve done what’s right for me.
Some people mindlessly conform without being bothered by it. (Some of the most successful people I know are like this.) A few are complete nonconformists and aren’t bothered by judgment. I live with the worst of both worlds. I’m a nonconformist who feels desperately different from those around me — but I’m also deeply hurt by the judgment I feel when I inevitably go my own way and others disapprove.
We all conform to some extent. Some people conform without even thinking about it — and many of those are never aware of how much their lives are guided by the fear of other people’s disapproval — and some people make conscious decisions about it. There are those like me who are very unconventional thinkers in the intellectual sense but who choose to look like everybody else. If you see me in a work setting, I’ll be wearing a white shirt and a red tie — I have a couple dozen variations of red ties like this one — simply because this is the “safe” uniform I choose to blend in when it suits my purposes.
I believe we would be happier if we weren’t so full of judgment for others. In fact, I have come to believe we would be less stressed if we didn’t have so many opinions at all. Why do I really need to have opinions about your life? Why do I need to be condescending — even in my private thoughts — about the ways in which you dress or speak or act?
Isn’t getting my own life where I want it to be difficult enough? Why should I waste my time with forming opinions and making judgments about you?
For the people we choose to be in the most intimate places in our lives, we really do need partners whose thinking and actions are similar to our own. (We will both feel more understood under such circumstances, for one thing.) But beyond that, how much better off would we be if we quit having opinions about other people — and focused on making our own lives what they ought to be?
I hate being judged. You probably do, too. But we both judge others more than we should. It would be healthier for both the judger and the judged if we could learn to focus on ourselves instead of judging others.
In most ways today, I see myself as a nonconformist. But the power of cultural conformity is so strong that I will always make sure my pants aren’t too short — so they won’t be “flood pants” — because I’m terrified of being humiliated again.
Whether conscious of it or not, we’re all terrified of that shame. So judgment and conformity are very difficult to leave behind.