“As long as you keep a person down, some part of you has to be down there to hold him down, so it means you cannot soar as you might otherwise.” – Marian Anderson
Do you have stereotypes?
We all want to be rational, to regard every person objectively according to their unique qualities, and always be realistic, open-minded and benevolent. Yet, we all feel more comfortable with people that seem to be like us, and suspicious of all of these unpredictable strangers and foreigners.
I, for example, took my problematic first car to a garage once, and the mechanic didn’t take proper care of it. His behavior made me think that he assumed that as a woman, I won’t be able to tell the difference. Ever since, I’ve thought of mechanics as chauvinists. I’ve never taken my cars to garages again, and instead asked one of the men in my life to do it for me.
Consequently, I’ve had to ask for favors, make complicated arrangements, and feel indebted. It made me feel stressed and restricted. Yet, I never tried to find a garage that would treat me professionally. Eventually, I was probably more hurt by my own prejudice about mechanics than by the mechanic’s prejudice.
Generally, we can’t help being prejudiced sometimes. Even if we know that it’s unfair. Even if we know it damages not only others but also us, as we lose valuable connections, live fearfully and hatefully, and see ourselves as jerks.
As Mark Twain wrote,
“The very ink with which all history is written is merely fluid prejudice.”
Yet, we can realize why we came to be such dinosaurs, and how to prevent ourselves from sticking spokes in our own wheels.
Why We’re Such Idiots
Illogically seeing the world in black and white is inevitable, at times, because it’s biological. We all have the archaic part of our brain, the primitive brain, which classifies everybody as “us” or “them”. The reason is, this brain is the one that takes control when we’re in danger (or when we see ourselves as being in danger, like when a colleague opposes us loudly).
When we feel threatened, we don’t have time to inspect each individual thoroughly and to give them the benefit of the doubt. We must decide right away if this person is a friend or a foe, and the simplest way is to choose whether they’re familiar or not. Our primitive brain happened to miss history lessons, so it naively believes that we should trust the people we know and suspect the ones we don’t.
Admittedly, our primitive brain is not the brightest thinker, our new brain is. Yet, the primitive is the quicker brain, so it’s the one that takes control in times of jeopardy. Or in times of illusory perils, like our ordinary stressed days. Or in times of no risk whatsoever, when we choose to address this brain nevertheless.
Frankly, in our modern lives, we’re seldom in danger. Alas, we’re lazy, and it’s always easier to draw a stereotype than to investigate some unfamiliar person we encountered. That’s why we often accept happily whatever our primitive brain tosses at us.
Unsurprisingly, it leaves us with the old comfortable feeling that the familiar is good, and the unfamiliar is bad. It is as convenient as it is stupid, but more often than not, we prefer convenience to wisdom. Our being overweight and in debt on average can testify for that.
Why We Don’t See Our Mistakes
Still, stereotypes do have something to do with reality, everyone is surely thinking frustratingly for a while now. Accountants do have more interest in accountancy, for some mysterious reason, that’s why they studied it. The South Americans are happier than the westerners, though they’re poorer, that’s what the research proves. The government does assemble certain officials at any given moment, that’s what they decided about.
A resemblance of members in groups can sometimes stem from self-identification, although it’s usually originated by less delightful reasons.
At best, it can come from cultures which educate people to adopt certain values, and then hold them to certain behaviors by various nasty means.
At worst, our stereotypes are self-fulfilling prophecies, materializing in reality thanks to the society that acts upon them, and the internalized oppression of the people within the groups.
A colored teenager from a slum, for example, has a lower chance of becoming a rich high-tech geek than a white teenager from a wealthy neighborhood. Not only can’t he pay for the same means, like electronic equipment and academic studies, but also his teachers and family probably don’t believe he can succeed, and he doesn’t believe it, either. If he also has the pleasure of encountering the police and being treated differently than a white teenager with a lawyer would, it possibly doesn’t help, either.
Hence, all of these prejudices and circumstances are usually mounted together to preserve the stereotypes.
How Science Adds Its Dishonorable Share
Moreover, there will always be researches that will show, for example, how inferior pupils from slums are. Researches tend to show correlations between variables without having to define the cause and effect, and therefore they often exacerbate stereotypes.
Besides, as Yuval Noah Harari points out, science has always helped the people who funded it. Furthermore, there has always been scientific research that proved whatever the people of the time wanted to hear. For instance, the different brains’ sizes of different religious groups, however absurd it may have been.
Still, even if too few colored teenagers from slums become rich high-techists, or scientists, no one can ever know which course a specific child would follow.
A stereotype can, sometimes, have something to do with reality, but it never is a reality. That’s the difference between stereotypes and knowledge. That’s the lie behind prejudices.
The lie we frequently fail to see.
How Being Unprejudiced Will Affect Us
For the benefit of us all, we better remember that we can never know how a person thinks or acts according to their origin and looks.
We can’t know people until we get to know them.
Remembering it can free us from the restrictive stereotypes we have about anyone and anything.
Therefore, it can free our lives, free our societies, and gradually free the entire world.
So, we better be realistic, and meet every person as the unique, intriguing individual he is.
Accepting one person at a time.
One group of people at a time.
Author Estee Horn comes from a long line of not-so-warty healing women. She uses their word-craft, as well as her MA in Eco-Psychology, to help people slow life down and be happier. To focus on what matters most, and enjoy every minute of it, get 15 Habits That Guarantee Happiness.
Image courtesy of Brooke Cagle.