Consider being approached by three different people:
- An attractive individual who appears to be between 30 and 35 years of age. He/she is smiling, eyes merry.
- An older, gray-haired individual. He/she appears to be glaring at you, jaw tight, grim purpose in every step.
- A child who appears to be 7 or 8. There are tears running down the child’s cheeks.
Do we prepare differently for each of these encounters? Of course we do. We make swift judgments about each person and the likely nature of the interaction based exclusively on their appearance and our cultural understanding of people who . . . well, look like them.
We’re stereotyping, using “a standardized mental picture that is held in common by members of a group and that represents an oversimplified opinion, prejudiced attitude, or uncritical judgment.”
Let’s consider the stereotypes at work related to a certain Starbucks in Philadelphia.
According to reports, two black men entered the store and asked to use the restroom. They were denied the use of the restroom and, at some point, were asked to leave. They said they were waiting for someone, declined to leave the store and did not purchase anything. The manager called the police. They were handcuffed, detained by police for several hours and eventually released without any charges being filed.
One imagines that people often come to Starbucks, ask to use the restroom, and sit and wait for someone. As for not ordering anything, it doesn’t seem implausible that someone might wait to order until the rest of the party arrives, as a matter of courtesy.
No report I have seen or heard suggests that the men were aggressive, or loud or were disturbing other patrons. Nor does it appear that the store was packed, lacking tables for paying customers. Why ask these two men to leave?
One plausible explanation: the manager applied a stereotype about blacks, or black males, or casually attired black males, one that portrayed them as trouble. Such a stereotype is common in our culture.
The manager’s stereotypes are not the only ones we need to consider. Our own stereotypes are in play in our perception of these events.
Did we immediately assume, when we heard about the incident, that these two black men must have been causing some disturbance? Or that this was some manufactured incident to feed a contrived narrative about discrimination?
Alternatively, did we immediately assume that these men were singled out because of their race?
My own review of the available information leads me to conclude that prejudice is the most plausible account for what happened. The point, however, is not whether I think Starbucks employees or Philadelphia police discriminated; it is that we must think, not merely apply our stereotypes and assume without analysis that we know what happened.
Whatever our perspective on the issue of racial equity or any other subject, we would be well-served to remember that our perception of events is influenced by our stereotypes, stereotypes we often invoke unconsciously, failing to recognize their effect on our perceptions.
It takes courage to confront our own stereotypes, our own unconscious biases. And it is only through such courageous reflection and conversation that we can build communities in which each person is treated with respect.