Believe Half of What You See

by Donald R. Barbera

Appearances can be deceiving. In the United States, they can even be fatal as the shooting death of Amadou Diallo proved. Mr. Diallo was shot 19 times by New York City police who thought he had a gun. He didn't. Still, the police shot at him 41 times and hit him 19 although he was unarmed. Some would say it was a mistake. Others would say it's another typical day of being black in America. Day after day, we make decisions based upon appearances. None of us would care to admit it but how a person looks is often how we judge that person. Studies have even shown that people make a 70% judgment about a person before they ever speak a word to that individual or that individual speaks to them. Studies also show that the judging party seldom overcomes these initial judgments without conscious effort.

Appearances can be deceiving in all things. Positive and negative stereotypes are abundant throughout the world and the sad truth is that many of us are unaware that we use these stereotypes on a regular basis to make decisions that affect other peoples lives.

Cultural programming often blinds us and we see what we think we see or want to see. This type of programming allows magicians to work their trade on us. It allows con men to have employment. It discourages us from reading the fine print. It puts us in danger of making decisions based on air instead of rock. Commonly, stereotypes refer negatively to minority groups and others who are disadvantaged. However, these are only the obvious stereotypes. Innumerable stereotypes that we are unaware of exist in our minds simply by social conditioning.

For instance, a male in a dark-blue, pin stripe suit with a white shirt and tie more than likely would be seen as a business man. This is what we have been conditioned to see. He could be a recently escaped convict, but our minds would tell us that he is a businessman.

A woman in an all white cotton skirt, blouse, shoes, hose and cap registers as a nurse or someone involved with the medical or dental profession. Any man or woman wearing a hard-hat, jeans, work shirt and heavy boots registers as a construction worker or repairman. A young man wearing baggy pants, reversed baseball cap, expensive tennis shoes and sports' team jacket is a teenager sporting the latest youngsters' fad.

In any of these scenarios, if the man or woman were African American or Latino a whole different perception would have arisen. If the black man or Latino had been standing in a department store, he might have been mistaken as a salesman or even a waiter if it was a restaurant. Or, perhaps the teenage kid would have been mistaken for a gang-banger. If the woman in white had been black, she registers as a cook or a housekeeper.

This is not to say that any of these cases are true. However, it exposes the potential weaknesses and feasible dangerous possibilities of such thinking. In some cases, the consequences can be major such as getting the wrong man or woman for the job. Charlatan doctors, scientists, teachers and even preachers use to stereotypes to hide from the law by taking advantage of our preconceptions to make fools of us. Convicted felons have masqueraded as legitimate professionals and have succeeded in fooling us more times than is comfortable.

In the black community, Clarence Thomas and other politicos have benefited to our detriment from "skin politics." Many thought when Clarence Thomas went to the Supreme Court, that his blackness would win out and he would become a spokesman for the "black" cause. It didn't happen and it didn't happen for a very good reason. Mr. Thomas was not actually a member of the community. He just had the proper skin for residence. Other black leaders and politicians have benefited from "skin politics." The net benefit to us has been these charlatans have looted, pillaged, and embarrassed the very people who put them into office. When making selections it is necessary to go beyond skin colors or we are just as guilty as those who have oppressed people in this country for years. We need no more Clarence Thomas's.

In more extreme cases, appearances could be fatal. Police and law enforcement agencies use stereotypical profiles to identify potential criminals, terrorist and others considered unsavory to the public. Misidentification by the police can have Appearances also block open communication by placing preconceived ideas into our minds that prevent us from listening and making evaluations based preconditioned stereotypes rather than merit. All of us at some time are victims of this shortsightedness. Blacks and minorities are regular victims of this phenomenon no matter how unintentional it may be. The media and entertainment industry have painted stereotypes of a variety of ethnic groups that do not ring true. During the early years of film making, Hollywood created stereotypes of Jews, Irishmen, Blacks, Italians that in no way reflected the essence of these diverse ethnic groups.

Reinforcement of these stereotypes whether consciously or unconsciously does little to improve relationships and in the end hurts all of us by causing polarization and mistrust that often results in broken hearts and broken heads. Consciousness of these shortcomings is a way to overcome them. At first, it will be uncomfortable. Then, it will become second nature.

Although things have changed much in this country, we still have a long way to go when it comes to giving just due to those who deserve it. Too often, reminders of the callousness and mean spirit of stereotypes in this country assault my senses. I tire of watching women clutch their purses when we are in an elevator together. I cannot flag taxis on a regular basis because they will not stop. I'm tired of people talking to me as a subordinate when I am at least an equal, but -- this is America and I'm used to the insult de jour whether they are aware of it or not. However, that does not mean that I have to like it; or, that I cannot do something about it.

We have done it more than once by putting people in positions of power based upon the color of their skin rather than upon the content of their character and qualifications and we have been rewarded with black men and women who steal our money, conduct illicit and illegal activities, involve themselves with drugs, pornography and a laundry list of embarrassments simple because they profited from the color of their skin.

A funny thing happened before I got a chance to complete this writing. I ended up attending a Workplace Diversity training session that addresses some of the very issues that I have talked about. Being sensitive to other points of view, cultures and backgrounds came off as the big winner in helping to improve diversity in the workforce. Ultimately, I believe it is best to treat people as they wish to be treated and to carry oneself in such a way that demands reciprocity and respect.

Believe Half of What You See by Donald R. Barbera

© Copyright 1999. All rights reserved. No portion of this work may be duplicated or copied without the expressed written consent of the author.

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