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Columns

Confessions of a Subconscious Racist

The implicit assumptions we make about people and the dangers of suppressing them

By Brooke H. Kantor

As I was living in New York City this summer, a good friend from high school came to visit me. He was a counselor on a program for high school students—a “teen tour” that traveled in a bus all across the United States. So on the one night that he was in town, we caught up over authentic chicken shawarma in the Lower East Side. For a full hour he told me stories about Earl the bus driver. Hired by the tour to drive the kids around, Earl was a man who had seen it all, and done it all. My friend’s impersonation of him included a deep baritone voice, drenched with a thick southern accent. His stories were hilarious and incredibly specific—I thought I could picture Earl and his unbelievable experiences perfectly.  There was no doubt about it: Earl was the bomb.

The next day I met my friend for an early breakfast to see him off. We talked until the bus pulled up, at which point I looked out the window to catch a glimpse of the infamous Earl. When he stepped off, I almost choked on my bagel. He was exactly how I pictured him in every way—large-bellied, white t-shirt with jeans, tennis shoes, greying hair—except one: Earl was white. Blood rushed to my face. I thought to myself, “Hadn’t my friend said he was black? I swear I thought I remember him saying that.” That was, of course, impossible. The only explanation was that my impulsive, sub-conscious biases had permeated the image that I had of this man. Because he was a bus driver from the south, I had assumed without even a thought that he must be black.

I cannot even begin to describe the emotions that followed: total embarrassment, anger, frustration, disappointment. What I had done was utterly wrong—no question about it. I was shocked at myself because I had always been the liberal-minded, politically correct member of my Texan family.  That’s not to say that I grew up in an environment where stereotypes were encouraged. But it would be wrong of me to claim that they did not exist. Still, I was the one who called my grandparents out for even borderline-stereotypical statements about people of different beliefs or ethnicities. And even though my assumption about Earl’s race had not actually caused anybody any damage, I felt the nagging urge to do something about it. But of course, there wasn’t anything I could do. I still feel the pang of guilt deep in my chest every time I think about it.

Of course, this incident made me question the other ways in which I perceive those around me—a facet of my personality I had, until that moment, believed to be fairly objective. And the questions went beyond race. What do I conclude about people who have more body fat? Or who always wear makeup? Or who speak with a thick southern accent? Do I change my level of confidence talking to certain people based on a predetermination of their social abilities, or their levels of intelligence? Do I naturally attempt to befriend only those whose outward appearances I believe reflect a certain type of person underneath? In other words, how often am I stereotyping people on a daily basis without even realizing it?

Feeling the need to confess to somebody my subconsciously racist thoughts, I confided in my best friend. She told me that I shouldn’t feel bad because the assumption I had made about Earl might have been made by anybody. We’re human beings and we naturally categorize people into groups based on previous knowledge and experience. Therefore, my assumption about Earl was natural and even arguably reasonable.

I could not disagree with her more. Perhaps she was right to point out that I am not the only person who would have jumped to the conclusion that Earl was black. But we cannot simply discount our prejudices based on the justification that as human beings we are naturally inclined to make preconceived assumptions about people. Rather, it is because human beings have a natural tendency to group people into categories that we must dedicate a significant amount of effort to combating those tendencies. We should never be overly confident in our abilities to analyze people equally. By pretending that our stereotypes of others don’t exist, we only reinforce the existence of those stereotypes.

Therefore, it is the responsibility of each of us to be conscious of how we analyze people. We need to sharpen our radars for times that we make baseless assumptions about people, like the assumption I made about Earl. Only by recognizing the existence of these preempted judgments are we able to work to eradicate them. I can’t take back the way I pictured Earl before I saw him. But I guarantee that the next time somebody describes to me somebody I haven’t met, I’m not going to make any assumptions.

Brooke H. Kantor ’15 is a Near Eastern languages and civilizations concentrator in Dunster House. Her column normally appears on alternate Mondays.

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