Do you ever judge people by their outward appearance? Of course you do. You’re human. That’s the way we’re wired. Despite our best efforts, we do it every day.
Black writer and actor Quancy Clayborne told a story on Twitter about an experience he had Friday at a coffee shop near his house in Seattle that illustrates how this works.
“I’m in line behind a guy who looked like a skinhead this morning,” Clayborne wrote. “He turned around and looked at me, so I’m thinking, ‘This isn’t going to end well.’ Then he says, ‘Hey brother, I will never understand what it’s like to be you, but I appreciate who you are.’ Then he shakes my hand.”
Clayborne was honest enough to admit that he assumed this skinhead type would be a racist and might even cause trouble for a black man. But there’s a lesson here for all of us. People aren’t always what we assume they are.
There’s a reason that stereotypes exist. Throughout history, the most cautious humans survived to pass their genes along. The most cautious and paranoid people learned to look for patterns in what others looked like and how they acted — even what tribes they were from — to make quick judgments about whether to trust them or not.
That sort of prejudice is hardwired into us by now, both genetically and in our cultures. But we live in a safer and more rational age. The person you meet on the street isn’t as likely to kill you on sight because you’re from the wrong tribe, but that long human history teaches us to judge by appearances.
When I see a well-groomed man dressed in a business suit, something in me assumes he’s unlikely to pull out a gun or knife to kill me. If his clothing, speech and attitudes remind me of what my biases tell me is a “thug,” I’m on guard and want to escape before something bad can happen to me.
I know those are prejudices, but they feel true. There’s even some truth to them. Someone who’s planning to rob me probably isn’t wearing a suit — unless he’s a politician, but then he just calls the robbery “taxes.” That’s another matter entirely.
When Quancy Clayborne saw the skinhead Friday morning, his mind made assumptions based on his experiences and his prejudices. He wasn’t necessarily wrong. There’s a very good chance that most of the skinheads he might encounter would be racists.
But this one individual wasn’t a racist. He was kind and loving.
I can’t personally evaluate every single person who I see in public. I can’t know what that person is like and whether he has love or hatred in his heart. There are times when I’m going to perceive danger and I’m going to get out of a situation as quickly as possible, because that’s the prudent thing.
But we can teach our inner bigot that he’s not always right. We can consciously decide to treat people as individuals. We can consciously decide to try not to assume our built-in prejudices are right. And we can consciously look for ways of connecting with people who aren’t like us — so we can learn more about who they really are as individuals and so they can learn who we are.
I’m happy that the skinhead in Seattle didn’t fit the stereotype which Clayborne had unconsciously — and reasonably — feared. I’m also glad that Clayborne had the wisdom and insight to realize what the incident says about all of us.
We’re never going to be perfect at judging each other as individuals, but we owe it to the future of the human race to try. We have to do a better job of loving each other if we’re ever going to live together in peace.