There’s a difference between understanding a statistical probability about someone and using that probability to make an assumption about that person.
The former merely involves knowing how to comprehend a statistic, while the latter consists of misusing that statistic to imprison a person inside a generalization — or in other words, committing a logical lapse. It denies them their full humanity, their individual autonomy. This assault on personhood is the mechanism by which racism, sexism, xenophobia and a million other degrading modes of thought operate. And it’s incredibly easy to get caught up in it; humans have a propensity to do so.
By nature, we categorize and simplify to make sense of the complicated world we live in — and truth is likely to get lost in translation. We become seekers of simplicity rather than seekers of truth, and oftentimes, others who share this world with us bear the cost.
This cost takes many forms, some more malicious than others. A woman is denied a promotion because of an employer’s unconscious inclination that women are too emotional to lead. A black man is denied a job because the name on his application has ethnic connotations, and thus all of the baggage that carries in America. A homosexual man is assumed to be more promiscuous than his straight counterpart.
But all are connected through a singular defect: It’s a cage crafted from the often unconscious attempts by human beings to categorize other human beings.
Many stereotypes are the result of social conditioning — oftentimes through exposure to Hollywood, the news media or society in general — and sometimes stereotypes are created and sustained in the cesspool of overt racism. For example, racists will come across a statistic about other human beings — like how African Americans in the U.S. have a higher incarceration rate than other races — and use that statistic to assume the character of the demographic represented by it. Without caring much for how such statistics come to be, such as through systemic oppression, these statistics give racists a foundational sense of rationalism for their misguided and immoral beliefs. Under the guise of this “rationalism,” they proceed to strip away room for doubt, that precious space that buffers people from the worst of dogmas. Doing so provides fertile grounds for racist movements.
Once racist movements capture this misguided sense of rationalism, they open themselves to broader appeal, an effect compounded by Western culture’s enlightenment influences. One doesn’t need to look too deeply into history to see this effect, though the early 20th century provides a stark example; you only have to look at America today with the rise of the Alt-right, a movement whose leader paints himself as an intellectual racist.
It’s important we don’t fall into the trap of letting a statistic, especially those taken out of context, lead us toward allowing negative stereotypes to shape our minds.
Making an assumption about which horse will win the Kentucky Derby based off statistics must be distinguished from making an assumption about a human being based off statistics. The crucial distinction is that the consequences between the two assumptions are in no way equal.
There are different consequences for betting on the horse race — the worst material outcome is you lose money. The worst immaterial outcome may be a loss of pride.
Betting on human beings is a completely different game. Imposing assumptions about human beings, which are often negative, can have terrible, life-changing effects for the victims. In a material sense, people are denied jobs, promotions, housing, and the list goes on. As for immaterial outcomes, people are denied respect, friendship and basic humanity. These negative outcomes often provide a feedback loop — with marginalized people being more likely to be pushed into a position of committing actions that lend toward their social exclusion.
Because of the difference in consequences, our decision calculus must adjust accordingly.
We must keep our unconscious biases in check. The trouble is that, while the effects of stereotyping are completely manifest for the victims, the causes are often hidden from the perpetrator under years of social conditioning. Moreover, many perpetrators are under the false assumption that they completely understand their own minds.
If they think they aren’t a racist, they believe it follows they aren’t a racist. They believe unconscious biases don’t exist, despite the vast amount of research that points to the contrary.
To mitigate this self-deception, we must all confront ourselves with the acknowledgment that we aren’t completely aware of some of our own beliefs. It will require humility and a great deal of internal debate.
We must leave room for doubt; it’s the only assurance you’re looking for Truth and not a crutch for your world view.