Sunday, October 01, 2006

Stereotypes: true or false

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.


santorio said...

the promiscuous gay stereotype:

fact--males are more promiscuous than females; spreading sperm around is a darwinian imperative [though the female of the species also has an interest in multiple partners--with just one partner, if that parner is sterile then no survival of that line].

theory--the social institution of marriage discourages promiscuity. gays do not have that advantage, which increases the probability of promiscuity.

bottom line: the 'natural man' seeks multiple partners.

is it sunday already? where are you writing from, L?

Kengo Biddles said...

Every exposure I've had to gay culture has fostered the stereotype of promiscuity and even drug use in my mind. It has been film, TV, even "pro-gay" shows (Queer as Folk).

Of course not all use/do it, but it's prevalent. I've been on enough dating sites in my time to honestly say that yes, a lot of gay men are still stuck in the promiscuous quick-fix mindset. It only took 8 guys bragging how many thousands of encounters they've had to reinforce that to me.

My Wifey has many gay friends, (per capita for a "straight" (6 or 7 that she made before marrying me)) who've done their best to stay in long-term relationships, but most of them don't work out that way.

Stereotypes are most often _based_ on reality. They may not be correct, they may be becoming less and less true, but it doesn't negate that it did and does happen, that it is, _at_some_level_true.

I try not to stereotype, and I'm not about to tell everyone I know my thoughts on the "gay lifestyle", but stereotypes start out as a generalization of what's _truly_ observable.

Scot said...

I don’t think anyone honestly minds a bias (if we gave it a different non-charged name), they save time. And anyone who says they have none, well, I’m biased to consider them a liar :-). I always automatically think, say, a mother loves her child.

But they should be treated like theories, always provisional, amenable or disposable at being made aware of additional data on the group or individuals, and always held on the ready for the exceptions to the rule. They do harm at the point of the exception to the person holding them.

Now though, you have no ethical responsibility to, say, a uranium atom, to not assume it’s just as dangerous as all the others. It’s not easy, but humans should be judged on their actions, and negative blanket statements about any group are nearly always going to be unjust to someone. I know I’ve done it too, and everyone should be called on it.

It should also be noted that, if you don’t believe, for your example of skin color, that pigment caused negative behaviors (I know you don’t :-)), then you have to know something else is causing the observations to be skewed. Sadly, part of that something else can often be the real effects of the bias itself.

As for gay stereotypes, there’s a couple more that could be added to Santorio’s list. Simply many of the same folks who decry the gay lifestyle do all they can to maintain it. Regarding the “natural man”, remind me to go on about the voles some day, Santorio :-). Some men are prairie voles, even if most may be mountain voles (I’ve a post on it in the chute).

-L- said...

I love that wise people read my blog and say cool stuff. Thanks to all.