I have a summer internship in New York City, and though it has its drawbacks (i.e. the 2-hour commute), I’ve really enjoyed the experience. One of my favorite non-work-related things about the job has been the people–well, the people-watching. Everyone who walks by me is the potential muse for a yet-to-be-written story, and I’ve come across some of the most interesting characters in this city that never sleeps.
I pass thousands of people on any given day in the Big Apple, but this particular morning I was really struck by a certain pair of men. They weren’t walking together, they probably didn’t know each other, and it’s likely they never will, but now they’re the unwitting stars of some girl’s blog post. Funny how things like that happen, huh?
So we’ll start with Man#1: a clean-shaven, short-haired fellow of average build and slightly above-average height. I’m no pro at guessing ages, but I’d place him at late-20s to early-30s. He was adorned in an Italian-cut navy suit, and each of his long strides showcased the crisp folds in center of his slacks, and was punctuated by the staccato clack of his shiny brown Oxfords. He held an iPhone up to his ear, and was doing what I can only describe as sternly listening to whoever was on the other end. His brow was furrowed and his mouth was set in a jaw-clenched straight line. Though the facial expression didn’t quite have the aggression of a full-on scowl, it was clear that his mind was made up. The man was on a mission.
My eyes followed him as he walked by me, and I even turned my head a bit to watch his retreating figure. When I realized how I’d gawked at him, I quickly turned back around, feeling sheepish and a bit disconcerted at the manner in which his presence demanded my attention. I focused my gaze back on the sidewalk ahead of me, and that’s when I saw Man#2.
Forgive me if Man#2’s description isn’t quite as involved as the first; I think my eyes lingered on him for all of 2 seconds, at most. He was a little thick, average height, with stubble lining his whole chin and a caterpillar-like growth of hair lying across his upper lip. I suppose I’d place him around the same age as Man#2, though I can’t be sure. He wore a black fitted cap, with something emblazoned on it in white stitching that I really can’t recall. His black t-shirt was very large on him, not unlike the baggy rag-thing Dobbie the House Elf wears in the Harry Potter films. His jeans could’ve passed for denim sweatpants, and they hung far past his hips. They were so low that if I’d bothered to turn around after he walked by, it’s not unlikely that I would’ve seen his underwear.
If he hadn’t been practically the polar opposite of the man I’d just stared down seconds before, I probably wouldn’t even have noticed he existed.
Alright, pop quiz! Without scrolling back up (don’t you dare! Don’t do it!), shout out (or think it out, if you’re in public or something) the answer to the following questions:
1) What was the skin color of Man#1?
2) What was the skin color of Man#2?
Got your answer? Alright, now go back up and re-read those two descriptions. Look for a color, a race, a nationality in what I wrote. Actually I’ll save you the trouble: I didn’t say a thing about color. I didn’t even specify hair or eye color. So do tell me, dear reader, if you did humor me by answering my questions–what information made you arrive at those answers?
If you found yourself making an assumption about the skin color of the men I described, it doesn’t mean you’re a hateful, racist bastard. All it means is, like everyone else, your mind has formed biases based off what you’ve seen and heard all your life. TV, movies, everyone you’ve ever seen or met–your brain takes a tally of what it considers the most significant and frequent occurrences, and holds onto certain notions to help you categorize the world around you. It’s quite handy for many things; for example, if you hear someone talking about something with a V8 engine and a nice paint job, your mind tells you that matches the category of a car. That’s safe to assume, right? However, when someone describes something with sagging pants and fitted cap, and your mind tells you that matches the category of a certain kind of skin color…
Well, that’s when some of us get a bit uncomfortable. Psychology tells us that eye witness testimonies about people who committed crimes are unfortunately wrong more often than they are right, for the exact reason that I just tried to illustrate for you: our biases make us assume things. All. The. Time.
The whole point of this post was to make anyone reading this aware of the little racist guy in their heads. Now don’t get me wrong–there are plenty of people whose life experiences have left them less susceptible to this little trick the brain does. Some people would read this, and answer my two questions about skin color with, “I dunno, mysterious blogger-chick.” But for the majority of us (myself included), we make little assumptions that are indicative of big stereotypes that are planted in our heads. And while it’s difficult to eradicate it (after all, these are unconscious powers at work), being more aware of the fact that it’s there is the first step to getting rid of it.
All I ask is that you try to start double-checking yourself. You might be surprised (and embarrassed) at what the little racist/sexist/homophobe in your head is whispering in your ear. Keeping that little guy in check will work wonders for making you a more open-minded person.