Recently, I was in a social setting that is usually low-key. A few neighbors who hang around and sometimes trade beers for food and other entertainment. I live in a pretty small town (very small) that was heavily covered in signs for months that heralded the current reign of 45’s terror. That should give you an idea of the political leanings here. Having lived in SoCal for many years, I’m sometimes not prepared for the ridiculous utterances of the people I encounter now that I’ve moved East.
What We’ve Got Here Is a Failure to Communicate
Without any background or preface, I was asked how I’d react to this scenario if I were a server in a restaurant: Several black patrons were ordering dinner and asked the server what she thought they would order.
My answer was something like, “It depends on what you’re in the mood for – but here are my favorites.” People always like suggestions, right? That didn’t quite answer the question as it was asked. And was most certainly not the one that was actually given to the patrons.
“Fried chicken and watermelon” was the answer. Despite the restaurant not serving either item.
The part-argument/part-discussion that ensued after I heard the answer didn’t help. “But that was what I think they wanted! What’s wrong with that? If you go to <this particular town nearby> there are TONS of places that sell fried chicken. They obviously like it.”
Despite my reflexive, “That’s just f*#&##g WRONG”, I couldn’t explain precisely why it was so bloody wrong, beyond it being a racist stereotype. Which meant in their eyes, I was apparently wrong (and also why the climate change discussion we had a little while later devolved into shouting). So, to cure my own inability to explain (I’m never at a loss for words, but sometimes they include the many version of f*%k sprinkled liberally about), here’s what I’ve learned.
Stereotypes and Bias: Not Quite Two Sides of the Same Coin
Stereotypes are “cognitive shortcuts.” Your brain is faced with a million bits of input every day. Even the fastest computer would be hard pressed to keep up. So your brain creates quick ways of recognizing people, places, and situations. But your brain doesn’t quite stop there with the recognition of something, it can add an extra filter called bias.
Here’s an example: say you were bitten by a dog as child. Traumatized, your brain decided that all dogs may bite you. When you see a dog later, now your fight or flight instinct kicks in. But let’s say you had a dog as a pet and you loved that dog! When you see a dog, your brain thinks “friendly” instead of “frightening”. You’re biased against all dogs depending on your experience. And as with many things, your brain doesn’t stop there, either.
This same process gets applied to people, too. Let’s say that the ONLY negative information you have on a group of people is what you’ve been told by others, what you see in the news and/or what you read on the internet. No firsthand experience, yet you’ve concluded you don’t like people from that group. Or you have a negative experience with one person from that group, so you paint them all with the same brush.
Oxford Dictionary defines bias as an, “inclination or prejudice for or against one person or group, especially in a way considered to be unfair.” Personally, I think that “or” should be and/or because most often you get both. A person pushing down another, while offering a hand up to someone else…who’s like them.
When you’re faced with a person that looks like the group you don’t like, your reaction will depend on how deep-seated that feeling has become. Maybe you’re interviewing a candidate for a job and your body language subtly tells them what your mouth doesn’t. Or maybe that person looks like you, so you treat them like you’d want to be treated, never stopping to think about how you’ve also now probably hypocrite to your list…but that’s a topic for another day.
We also know that people tend to seek validation for , which leads to a very narrow view of the world. You’ll base your entire view on that small slice of reality and will likely never seek to challenge your own opinion. And we’ll end up being offered fried racism under the guise of dinner suggestions.
What Can We Do About This?
If you believe the Warden from Cool Hand Luke, there are some you just won’t reach. I think that’s likely true. There are lots of factors that play into that, but it’s mainly the lack of desire to change. You have to want to see another side of things first. If you don’t want to see things differently, you won’t. It plays out again and again in the news, most recently in the heartbreaking story of . Headlines shout at the NRA for not supporting a legal gun owner, yet their silence is deafening. And damning. That silence shouts their bias to the world.
Most of us don’t have, nor will we ever have, the reach of someone like Trevor Noah. And that’s ok. That doesn’t mean we’re powerless. It’s up to each one of us to do what we can, every day, to be a positive force in our communities. Grassroots isn’t just a pretty name we use because we’re all secretly hippies at heart. It’s a bunch of everyday people who work to change what’s within their reach. As we do that, we meet up with others who are doing the same. We find that we’re not alone. And in that, maybe we also find hope that tomorrow will be better than today.
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