This morning at 4:30am as I woke up for my hour and half of insomnia before I fall back asleep at 6am right before my alarm rings at 6:07am I had some thoughts. I guess it started when out of boredom I began slyly brushing Aqila’s hair straight up so when she got up it would be sticking straight up like a toy troll doll. Then I noticed she has a special satin pillowcase so her hair won’t get pulled out. Then it sort of struck me, we are technically an “interracial” couple. I am not going to lie, I rarely think of that, in fact I almost never think about it. It is not because I am so above humanity that I don’t see color, no, it is that Aqila and I are so similar I don’t see her as that different from me, well except for her lady parts.
So I began to wonder, what makes people judge others and thus spawn “racism”. Then the answer was pretty simple, instinct.
Here is the deal, humans instinctually organize objects into categories, we can’t help it, we are hardwired for it. Whether we are looking at clothing, foods, animals, whatever, we put them in groups based on similarities and then we make statements to describe those groups.
For instance Mammals are a group. Mammals have hair, warm blood, birth live young, feed their young milk, and practice parental care. HOWEVER some mammals lay eggs, some mammals don’t have hair, there are exceptions. But generally we don’t think of the exceptions, we think of the norms.
Now as we grow our brains work in a way that they attach knowledge to said categories. For example foods. We see the food and recognize it, then we taste it, now we decide how it tastes and if we like it.
Apple = red = sweet = good
Lemon = yellow = sour = not good.
Now, something else can happen, we may never eat a lemon but if we watch the majority of the people taste one and make a disgusted face we are going to categorize it as bad because we can infer from watching other people experience it. Blame it on our higher level of intellect.
So as we look at fruit we see the color, we recognize what it is, we attach what we have learned about it and make a judgement.
So instinctively we look at humans and categorize them. The easiest way is sex, male or female is generally our first observation and the beginning of our categorical classification of the human. Then general ethnicity, white, black, asian, hispanic, etc. Now because our brains do what they are hardwired to do…..attach past memories and knowledge to physical attributes we judge people on their appearance and our past experiences with said category.
So if a black person is only exposed to white people only in the form of a policeman they are going to attach that experience to all white people. If a white person only sees rap videos with black people they are going to attach that experience to all black people. If I only see photos of asian people reading and taking tests I am going to assume all asian people are into that.
This is the human brain at work. Now I am going to say something no one has told you.
It is OK to pass judgement on people when you first see them, it is natural, it is OK, EVERYONE does it. However once it passes open yourself up to look deeper past the initial judgement. Because when you do this two things can happen. You might be right and the person may live up to the stereotype OR the person may be different than what you thought. Now if they are different you have just added a new experience to your category and can draw upon that later.
What does this mean?
Judging people by appearance is natural….but can be changed. How? Simple, don’t be the stereotype attached to your category.
Lets pick on me for a moment. I am Italian, there are stereotypes that go with Italians. Greasy, hairy, loud criminals who wear gold chains and track suits. So if I go out acting like this I cannot blame anyone who judges me and thus reinforces their preconceived notion of Italians, I am hurting my ethnic group, I am living the stereotype. However if I am soft-spoken, articulate, and sport flannel shirts with cargo pants then I am changing someone’s experience with the Italian category.
I also realized that categories can be changed. For instance I like to surround myself with people who have a good sense of humor, like laughing, like geeky stuff, and most importantly have a sense of humor, did I mention sense of humor? So no matter what your race or sex I am going to hang out with people most like me. Now it gets tricky here. When we first meet people, we use looks to see who is most like us.
You are a new student at a school, you go through the lunch line, you have your tray, you survey the table situation. How do you choose where to sit? You look for the people who you can relate to, but you haven’t talked to anyone yet, so how do you know if they are like you? You judge them on appearance. If I see a table of people wearing glasses, have clever nerdy t-shirts on and comic books on the table I am going to assume I can sit with them and at least make enough small talk due to like interests to hopefully spark friendships.
We do the same thing with color and ethnicity. If I am white and there is a table of white people and black people I am going to assume I have more shared experiences with the white people than the black, now this may be incorrect, but as our brain plays the odds at lightning speed this comes out as the likely group with shared interests because we look the most alike.
I walk in, table of black people, table of white people. Black table has people wearing clever nerdy shirts, reading comics, laughing, and are looking at pictures of snakes on a macbook pro. Table of white people, all are wearing sutis, reading newspapers, and no one is laughing. I am going to sit with the table of black people. Because I could visually know them past their skin color I could ascertain that I would have more to say to them.
So yes, we should look past skin color before passing judgement, but the onus is on each one of us to make ourselves more inviting so people won’t pass judgement. One of the examples I always give is clothing. If I am working in a store and two people walk in, one wearing a hoodie with the hood up and baggy jeans that are falling of their backside and another person, same age, wearing a suit. No matter what the race, I am going to watch the baggy jeaned hoodie guy more closely because in the past I have noticed the people dressed like this are more likely to steal than the guy in the suit.
So what have we learned?
1. It is instinctual to judge on appearance.
2. We can change the stereotypes attached to our category (which does not necessarily mean race).
3. You cannot blame people for judging how they view you, but you can blame yourself for not changing said view of you.
So, all in all this can be summed up by one amazing statement from one the greatest revolutionaries in the world.
“You must be the change you wish to see in the world.”