Humans are programmed to stereotype and discriminate. Stereotypes consist of any preconceived idea.
We are evolutionary beings. We resist learning and change, and we embrace opportunities that and others who reinforce our core identities. These differences divide us along racialized, sexualized, classized, geographicalized, genderized lines, and other variables. These divisions are natural; however, they can be somewhat unlearned.
For several years now, I have used a diagram I created that includes six steps that explain this process.
All day, every day we make observations that lead to impressions that are immediately consciously and unconsciously labeled and categorized which result in and/or trigger stereotypes which result in feelings of prejudice toward “the other” and when acted on and institutionalized these result en masse discrimination.
To demonstrate this process, let’s do a quick exercise. It works better live, but we’ll make do. Click on the following link. Look at the image for no more than two or three seconds. Write down what you saw. Then, write down some impressions.
Stereotype image – Remember no more than 3 seconds.
What did you come up with?
If we’re honest, most of us immediately had feelings of discomfort and all sorts of assumptions. These are natural. We can and should, however, avoid acting on these or letting these sway our actions. It takes practice sometimes.
Now take a look at a second image, and see what kind of list you come up with.
Stereotype image– Remember no more than 3 seconds.
What did you come up with?
Did you notice the same person was in each image?
As much as our rhetoric says outside appearances don’t matter, sadly, they do. Similarly, people can be and are racialized differently depending on physical appearances.
Watch your thoughts; they become words. Watch your words; they become actions. Watch your actions; they become habits. Watch your habits; they become character. Watch your character; it becomes your destiny.
This also further begs the questions about the nature of “differences.” Some people argue that all of the divisions plaguing the nation today would go away if the news and scholars stopped drawing attention to the differences and conflicts between whites and blacks, heterosexuals and homosexuals, and the rich and poor. From both past events and from the study of history, this is a dangerous proposition. En masse discrimination is alive and thriving – at alarming levels. Look at incarceration rates and poverty rates to just begin.
Others say that discrimination would go away if children did not learn hateful attitudes from their parents, peers, movies, and television. While a wonderful and utopian thought, this is unrealistic as a sole solution. We are pre-programmed to prefer those who “look like us” and “sound like us” and have any other similarity. Differences and changes are scary. Teaching children to be accepting alone is not enough.
Nonetheless, to avoid stereotyping and discriminating, I think it is helpful for us to do two exercises and to keep their lessons in mind. This is in addition to helping educate others through day-to-day conversation and modeling good behavior.
First, think of as many universal human experiences as you can. These have to apply to all people across time and place. There are a variety of possible variables, but be careful that it applies to EVERY ONE. Culture is a complex force. This activity is useful because we realize how unique we all are and that we still share the “blood of humanity” so to speak.
Culture – the attitudes, beliefs, values, and practices shared by a community of people which they often do not state or question and which they may not be consciously aware of
Second, we need to recognize sources of human identity. What variables–biologically/psychologically, socially, environmentally, etc–contribute to who we are? These help us recognize that who we are is a complex mix of all sorts of factors and things could have easily been different for each of us. In the end, however, we cannot fully know all of the things that contribute to our core being.
For more information on how the complex mix of psychology, biology, and evolution divide humans, please see this wonderful book: The Righteous Mind: Why Good People Are Divided by Politics and Religion.