--by Mike Murray
You walk by a television monitor in a communal area of your college campus. Students are gathered, watching in stunned silence. Awful video images capture your attention. Over-sized graphics blare the tragic news: “Dozens Killed.” The crawl on the bottom of the screen adds to the horror: many more injured, all by a deranged gunman.
What flashes through your mind? What image forms of the killer? What do you assume are the shooter’s race and gender?
You arrive home from a stressful day at work. You change into casual clothes, grab something soothing to drink, and settle into a comfortable chair. Scanning the newspaper, you come across a story of small-shop owner in an inner-city neighborhood who has been beaten and robbed at gunpoint.
The first paragraph of the article mentions only that the perpetrators are young males – nothing more. What picture do you conjure up? In your mind’s eye, what do the suspects look like? What are the characteristics of the victim?
You wash dinner dishes with background sounds of a television reaching from another room. A talking head who is taking the audience to commercial break offers a teaser to keep viewers and listeners tuned in.
“When we return, the winner of the XYZ Teacher of the Year Award will join us in the studio.”
What is your expectation? Who will the winner look like? Will he or she resemble you (or one of your ancestors?) What , do you suppose, will be his or her gender? His or her race? His or her approximate age?
You stand in the grocery store checkout line, awaiting your turn. The clerk chats up the customer ahead of you. One is telling the other of a student at a child’s school who has just recorded the highest score on the SAT college-entrance exam. In addition to scoring extremely well overall, a perfect quantitative (math) score was achieved.
Learning no more about the stellar student, where does your imagination take you? Is the math whiz a boy or a girl? Black, white, Asian, Latino, or otherwise? A native to America or an immigrant?
You stroll the aisles of your favorite bookstore, perusing titles. As you walk past two well-dressed customers, you hear one say: “Well, you know what those welfare queens are like.” The other person nods in agreement.
What is your reaction? What mental picture do you form of the object of their criticism?
You ride into work on the morning train as two commuters heatedly debate. The topic is political. One is arguing forcefully for immigration reform that starts with border security. The other is arguing just as vigorously for changes in laws that make the path to citizenship – and the achievement of amnesty for those already here illegally – easier.
Do you presume that the debaters are of different political persuasions? And if so, which is the Democrat, which the Republican? In your mind, is either an independent?
You sit on a stool in your neighborhood sports bar, sipping your suds. Two nearby football fans are absorbed by the NFL draft show that blares from monitors all over the room. Discussing the probable upcoming selection of a quarterback for the home team, the conversation turns to likely candidates.
One fan favors a big kid out of a backwoods section of Alabama who played for the Crimson Tide. He appears on the screen in an interview and speaks in a casual, grammatically incorrect way – and with a distinct drawl.
The other fan prefers a QB out of UCLA, one who originally hails from an inner-city neighborhood in New Jersey. He notes, however, that some pundits have wondered whether the prospect is “mentally suited” to the quarterback position. No image of him appears on the screen.
What suppositions form about the intelligence of the first potential draftee, the one who was raised in a rural, southern setting – the one with the thick “accent?” And what notions of race and background form about the second one – the one raised in Jersey?
Relax. You are not alone. There is not a person alive who is completely immune to stereotypical thinking. Anyone who says otherwise – I contend with all due respect – is delusional at the very least. It is thoroughly human to be influenced by the culture and events that surround us.
Moreover, there is a “kernel of truth” (according to social scientists) to most stereotypes. Numerous serial killers have been white males. Lots of Asians have done well in math. Many small-shop owners have been robbed by black men. And scores of women, many of them white and middle-aged, have won teacher awards.
When provided only partial information about an event it is not unusual to jump to a false conclusion. In such cases, it is all-too easy to rely on preconceived notions – and to assume wrongly. It is not our instinctive reactions that should trouble us. It is what we think after we’ve had sufficient time to reflect that should give us pause.
It should be our goal to do our best to put knee-jerk, first impressions into proper perspective. We should strive to reserve judgment until there has been sufficient time to gather data impartially, to review objectively, and to analyze fairly – irrespective of our own ethnicities, genders, races, and political affiliations.
We know that already, of course. The trick is not in the awareness of decency; it is in its application.
In the movie Meatballs, a camp counselor played by Bill Murray coaches a high-jump competitor. Standing alongside his charge, a boy poised to begin his run-up toward the bar, Murray suggests: “Try to jump very, very high.”
Simple enough advice, perhaps. But as a society, we would do well to heed it. We should aim high.
Copyright © 2007 Michael F. Murray -- All rights reserved.