Generalizations and preconceived notions – pretty innocuous. Since we all have them, they can’t cause harm. Really? Think again. Even before we’ve spoken word one to a stranger, we’ve formed fairly clear ideas of who this stranger is. Say, for example, you meet a young man on the street corner. His clothes alone might tell you whether he has disposable income or if he is a criminal. His hair style might tell you whether he is immature. Add to the mix that this young man is African-American. What do you now know about him? It doesn’t matter what you are – for example, Caucasian or African-American – you still know nothing of any consequence about him. The clothes may be borrowed. The hoodie may keep out the cold. The dreds may be the valid choice of an adult seeking a cultural identity different from your own. This young man could be anything and anyone. Until he lets you into his world and tells you his truths, you know nothing.
That feeling of fear you experience upon seeing the young man, may lead you to discount the very person who will pull you from harm’s way as a bus speeds around the corner. That feeling of safety you experience upon seeing the young man, may lead you into a life-threatening situation. Notwithstanding your preconceived notions, that young man may one day be the doctor who saves your life or the burglar who breaks into your home. You have no idea who the young man is or who he will become.
Preconceived notions are the stereotypes that we all carry around inside our heads. They simplify our lives, by lessening our need to think, because we feel we already know. But, we are at our best when we think. I will admit, though, that on rare occasions a preconceived notion or stereotype accurately portrays the truth. As they say, even a broken clock tells the right time twice a day. But, more often than not our preconceived notions and stereotypes are inaccurate. That inaccuracy not only does a disservice to the people we meet, but it does a disservice to ourselves, because it inevitably leads us into an unhealthy ethnocentrism – a “we/they” attitude. We assume that people like us are okay, and people different from us are to be distrusted. That assumption can have dire consequences, as we self-inflict a blindness that makes it impossible for us to see the worth in others. Unless, however, they look somewhat like ourselves.
Reproduction of a 1900 William H. West minstrel show poster, originally published by the Strobridge Litho Co., shows the transformation from white to “black”. From Wikipedia