Last week a maintenance guy banged on our door to warn us that "a couple black teenagers were just hanging around your truck and then I saw them put something shiny under their shirt and take off." While I appreciated the warning of suspicious activity, my first reaction was not to thank him but to ask "why does it matter that they were black?" But, I'm not the confrontational type typically (in person, anyway:-)), so I bit my lip.
It got me thinking though. I imagine that detail was relevant because of his experience. He does live in a neighborhood where a lot of crimes are committed by black teenagers. And the general stereotype presented in media is that teenage hoodlums, gang members, and thugs, are typically black. But, I have many close friends who are black who are wonderfully gifted, honest people who suffer from such stereotypes.
I see a lot of black people in our Emergency Department. I wish I could report that there was absolutely no difference between blacks and other races as they present in the ED, but there are. There have been some belligerent and unreasonable patients with a particular issue that have all been black. All. Without exception. Instead of accepting that association as a fact generalizable to all blacks, I consciously remind myself that it is NOT generalizable.
So how do I use such information? Very carefully, if I'm at my best. If I or my family have been burned for trusting in a particular set of circumstances, it would be foolish not for me to take caution when met with those circumstances in the future. And given how limited my own experience is, it's prudent to learn from the experiences of others. And that leads to judging individuals based on the most prevalent actions of a particular demographic. Racial profiling. Discrimination.
Although the popular notion these days is to be completely tolerant and non-discriminating on the basis of race, sexual orientation, etc., I think that's way oversimplified. Sorry to say it, and I recognize the unpopular and vulnerable position such a thought places me in, but I'm learning and willing to take the hits if it teaches me something valuable. A more nuanced position is to minimize the harm. Sometimes minimizing harm will involve erring on the side of caution--being more careful in certain circumstances because of who someone is based on my experience, all the while recognizing that I could be completely safe and the person may be offended because of my caution. Other times I will have to play that against the harm experienced by a person who is not typical, who does not fit the data, who bucks the trends. Such people can be truly harmed by being treated differently for someone else's crimes.
Someone like me could be harmed.
So, yeah, I can see how a parent wouldn't want his daughter to marry someone like me based on the data. Based on conventional wisdom, he'd want his loved one to be safe from the nearly universal failure reported for mixed orientation marriages. But after getting to know me... after learning about my values and my integrity, I think I could demonstrate that I'm an exception.
Specifically, racism is a metaphor for generalizations about gays being promiscuous and mixed orientation marriages failing: two topics more close to home. I have a personal belief that the data presented on both of those topics is rapidly becoming outdated as society changes. It would be a terrible mistake to pronounce final judgement on individuals based on such stereotypes. Caution and respect are both necessary for understanding and acting on the data--the common, the uncommon, and the ideal.