Human beings love to classify, to group everything into categories of like objects. We do this because it helps us to make sense of our world without having to remember information about every individual person, place, animal, and anything else we might encounter.
We know what buildings are, and as such we don’t have to carefully consider whether each building we pass is a threat to our safety or something that can be eaten. Categorization saves us a lot of time and energy that we would otherwise have to spend investigating literally every new thing we come across.
But sometimes, our generalizations lead us astray. Most people have, say, asked for help in a store from someone who looked like an employee but was only another customer. We make mistakes like this because we have a generalized idea of what an employee looks like, but our assumptions based on these generalizations are not always accurate. In this case, the generalization might be “employees at Target wear red shirts and khakis,” but this does not mean that non-employees can’t wear red shirts and khakis in Target.
Essentially, while our tendency to categorize makes our thought process more efficient, it can also lead us to make mistakes.
We also like to generalize other people in ways that are not always useful. Sometimes, putting people into categories helps us to know how we should interact with them. We have different social rules for talking with family than we do for talking with friends, different rules for teachers, bosses, coworkers, police officers; the list goes on. Categorizing people in this way is helpful to us because it allows us to show an appropriate level of respect or avoid sharing unnecessary information.
We also tend to create categories based on things like race, class, gender, disability, sexual orientation, et cetera. Even these can sometimes be useful—race, gender, and disability status can help a medical professional decide the best way to diagnose and treat a patient, class is a good determining factor for who receives help from charities and government programs, and knowing a person’s sexual orientation can definitely help you decide whether to pursue a relationship with them. When used in this way, our categorization of people can be useful and helpful.
However, we don’t always use these categories in a positive way. We tend to ascribe traits to these categories that aren’t necessarily correct—much like our assumption about the person wearing red at Target. But categories like race, class, and gender apply to a much wider variety of people, and in a much broader setting than just a store. In addition, a person can’t simply shed one of these identities as easily as taking off a red shirt. The traits we associate with each of these respective categories become expectations for behavior, which we enforce in all settings whether we mean to or not. We associate girls with gentleness and restraint, the poor with laziness and filth, the disabled with incapacity and helplessness, and so on. Without even meaning to, we create restraints for people as we categorize them. We use our categories to form rules for how we expect others to act, rather than guidelines for how we should interact with them.
The important thing to realize about this is that, even as we group people and punish them for defying our expectations of that group, we don’t normally do this consciously or with any sort of malice. We have these expectations taught to us from an early age, and it is difficult for us to question these beliefs because they are so ingrained in our psyche.
The first step in ending discrimination is realizing that everyone discriminates, whether we mean to or not. When we see a person defying our expectations for their group, we should ask ourselves why it makes us uncomfortable rather than rebuking them automatically. When we feel ourselves making judgments, we should take a step back and examine whether we have enough information to make that kind of assumption.
The world we live in is constantly changing and defying our expectations, and it’s bound to make us uncomfortable sometimes. It is very easy for us to punish unexpected behavior that makes us uncomfortable. What isn’t easy is stepping back and realizing that sometimes we, not others, are the ones that need to change. If we can all work on changing the way we judge and form assumptions about others, we’ll be able to create a safer and more comfortable world for everyone to live in.