Those that know me may very well know how much I love Malcolm Gladwell. His books “Blink” and “The Tipping Point” were fascinating to me, and his keynote address this spring at WebmasterWorld was one of the most interesting speaches I’ve ever heard. I’ve been reading his blog for a bit now, and he’s been in a long, somewhat drawn-out conversation with his readers about a specific study that pointed to racial discrimination at car dealerships. He wrote about the study in his book “Blink” and sums it up in these posts (I encourage you to skim them all as they build the case for him most recent post).
After several posts, and hundreds of comments from his readers, he finally gets down to something that has plagued me for years; how do you balance the act of using stereotypes as a necessary part of life, while not falling into the ugly side of discrimination or racism. At one point in my life I was taught that stereotypes in and of themselves are not a bad thing. We all make them constantly as part of going about our life. Actions as trivial as rough-housing with a bunch of teenage boys versus being gentle and kind to an elderly woman are based on stereotypes. I doubt anyone would say that these generalizations are malicious and out to harm anyone. Yet when do quick summations of a person based on the available information turn into racism or negative profiling?
Gladwell quotes Judge Posner in his review of “Blink;”
As Judge Posner reminded us, in his review of Blink, in situations where one doesnâ€™t know a lot about an individual, it may â€œsensible to ascribe the group’s average characteristics to each member of the group, even though one knows that many members deviate from the average.â€
Gladwell then goes on to describe a sterotyping he did recently while travelling through Oklahoma and Texas;
The fact that I was in Texas and Oklahoma mattered a lot. I wouldnâ€™t have assumed that I could talk about college football with a similar group of white male business types from, say, Silicon Valley. The fact that they were businessmen mattered, and not, say, graphic designers or actors. The fact that they were men and not women mattered…
He then goes on to to say the most poignant phrase I’ve ever heard in the matter that creates a perfect line of distinction between when it’s acceptable and when it’s not.
The short answer to that question, I think, is that this is what racial prejudice is: it is the irrational elevation of race-based considerations over other, equally or more relevant factors.
I think this is a true test whether dealing with race or any other piece of information that causes us to make irrational decisions about a person based on one factor. It would be just as relevant when dealing with homophobia, punk kids, homeless people, the elderly. When one piece of information causes us to make decisions about a person while ignoring other or more relevant factors, we’re descriminating.
I encourage you to read his blog, and at the very least, this last post.