Image you are driving in your car in an unfamiliar city. Your phone is dead, you are running on empty, and it is pouring rain. You grit your teeth just hoping your car will make it to a gas station or, in the very least, a safe stopping point. You drive deeper into neighborhoods with boarded up buildings, storefront churches, cash advance outfits, and the like. You are lost, and the only thing dissipating more than your surroundings is your gas tank. Your car is hacking along on fumes, and suddenly, as the watery squall gushes at you, your car begins to hydroplane.
You lose control, slide into a curb, and you blow out your front passenger tire. You are stranded. You drape your jacket over your head and step out of the car. The street is becoming a lazy river. Your shoes and socks are soaked through immediately. You lock your doors and hurry onto the sidewalk and begin scanning in every direction- looking for bright lights and signs of commercial life. You spot a brightly lit banner about a quarter mile up the road. The rain starts to subside. As you walk toward the fluorescent lights, the once pouring rain is now a trickle.
Things seems to be advancing in your favor. You begin to relax. Your surroundings are unfamiliar and feel rather unsafe, but you tell yourself that your night cannot get any worse. “Surely the weather has kept everyone in for the night,” you say to yourself. Despite your comparatively zen state, you are still on red alert. You finally make it to the bright lights up the road. There is a sign on the door. Haphazardly written in Sharpie it says, “Kenny’s Chit’lins -N- Fish closed- power outage.” You hang your head and let out a sigh. Then the worst happens. A car pulls up to the side of the street, just a few feet behind you.
The muffler is loud. There are men raising their voices. Your stomach sinks. You are outnumbered. You resign to the fact that your night is about to get a whole lot worse. Maybe this is the last night of your life. After all of your years on this earth- your overcoming of adversities; your celebrations of your life’s greatest joys and victories, this is not how you imagined it would end. Sopping wet, staring through the window of Kenny’s Chit’lins -N- Fish. “What even is a chitterling?” you ask yourself. “I guess it’s too late to find out now.” The car door closes. Four-five-six men step out of the car. At least it looks that way from the shoddy reflection. You are too afraid to face them. They seem to be walking toward you. You slowly turn around. One man reaches into the pocket of his large coat. He slowly pulls his hand out of his pocket and brandishes a pocket-sized New Testament.
Now stop. How much relief do you feel in that moment after realizing that these men are on their way to a Bible study?
Do you see what you did there? You just profiled this group of men. You automatically assumed that just because these ostensible goons were on their way to a Bible study that they must be safe. How dare you!
This is the logic of some people in reverse. They might say something like, “See? You shouldn’t stereotype others. Those men turned out to be nice, church-going boys.” What they would fail to see is that they have just traded a negative stereotype for a positive one. Apparently one is allowed while the other is not. To such a person I would explain that they do not have a problem with stereotypes, they only have a problem with stereotypes when they pertain to a group of people they believe are socially oppressed.
It is, in fact, impossible not to stereotype. When you are walking through the woods, you might recoil at the sight of a vine because your brain has not immediately figured out that it is not a venomous snake. Some paths in the brain are longer than others, and your brain has a tendency to quickly generalize an experience before it has time to analyze it. Stereotyping is the brain’s way of not taking a gamble when the stakes of survival are high.
Go back to the illustration from before. Before you had time to analyze the situation, you had to make value judgements to prepare for your own survival. Upon learning that the men were apparently harmless, you had to incorporate separate generalizations in order to get a picture of what these men might be like based on your general experience with the types of people that attend Bible studies. They may not always be stellar acquaintances, but your experience at least tells you they are unlikely to rob, injure, or murder you. Your knowledge or personal encounter with inner-city crime statistics or criminal encounters tells you the risk of danger is at least more likely.
When your survival is at stake, there is no time to worry about false assumptions. Once you are able to safely gather more information regarding your encounter you are able to determine the probable safety of the situation and make the decision to either salute, flee, or prepare for battle. If and when you are enabled to calculate that you are safe, then you may begin to lay down your arms of generalization.
Stereotypes should never be forsaken. They should only be refined through furthering keen observation and learning. They should be seen as tools for survival, anecdotes of information, and sources of good humor. When need be, they can be surrendered on an individual basis. For by their nature they are generalizations, and generalizations hold different value in the context of genuine relationships. Everyone deserves the benefit of the doubt, but only the foolish will on principle forsake their doubts to seem cordial or accepting. After all, social niceties only exist in those not absolved by danger.