by Ted Miller
(originally published July 2017 in Tumbleweird)
We like to label things. It’s built in to our DNA. It’s how we name things in language. It’s how we tell someone it’s a dog, not a cat. A Chihuahua, not a Great Dane. We group things together that are the same and different in order to make sense of the world. And we are taught to do so at an early age. On Sesame Street we learn that “one of these things is not like the other, one of these things just doesn’t belong.”
It’s important to be able to recognize things by their characteristics. On a fundamental level, it’s how we have evolved to be able to recognize danger. Our natural fear of things that can hurt us helps keep our curiosity in check with a healthy dose of respect for danger. That’s why some people have an irrational fear of spiders or snakes even though most are beneficial and harmless to humans.
And as humans evolved in our social construct, we learned to recognize members of our own tribe and identify members of other tribes who were our enemies, our competitors for the same resources, threats to our survival. The “others” were to be feared, to be kept away from our own kind, to be killed if they threatened us.
So, we have a natural, instinctual way of thinking about the world as “us versus them.” The more different from us someone seems, the more difficult it is to think of them as one of us. The more difficult it is to think of them as the same. The more difficult it is to not think of them as a threat.
Labels can be used to demonize others, to diminish them, to make a group less than human, and therefore make them not worthy of equal treatment. That’s why we use pejoratives to label others that we don’t want in our group. We use stereotypes to rationalize treating others differently. In wartime, soldiers adopt racial or ethnic slurs to describe the enemy, to diminish them as something less than themselves. If the enemy is less than human, if we don’t think of them as part of our tribe, it’s easier to kill them. When one group of humans subjugates another, labeling that other group with pejoratives and negative stereotypes allows us to feel superior and rationalize that they deserve their lot in life. If we associate all the negative stereotypes with a group, it’s easier to deny them their humanity.
And when our culture continues to reinforce those stereotypes, we continually reinforce our baser instinct to classify someone who is not like us as someone who doesn’t belong. In a tense, life threatening situation, we instinctually react to someone who is different as a threat to our survival.
And that’s why some police officers react differently to a black man solely because of the color of his skin. In an instant of heightened anxiety, that animal instinct for survival kicks in and suddenly all the stereotypes of our culture overtake any rational thought and in an instant, a deadly, lethal mistake is made. The reality of this has been in the news over and over again with stories of innocent black men unnecessarily killed by a police officer. We as a society must figure out how to stop this. We must learn how to overcome our biases and prejudices. And we must start with those whom we trust most of all to serve and protect us.
A friend of mine was recently pulled over for speeding. He was running late and only thinking about getting to his commitment, and in a moment of misjudgment, stepped out of his car as the policeman approached him. In spite of him holding up his hands, in spite of him calmly telling the officer he was late and admitting he had been speeding, suddenly he became a threat. A call for backup was made and seven other officers showed up. The situation escalated in an instant because my friend stepped out of his car. And, in all likelihood, because he is black.
I remember years ago getting pulled over for the same thing, and I remember getting out of my car to talk to the police officer because I thought that was a polite and less threatening approach. I didn’t think twice about it, and no backup was called. I don’t even remember if the police officer told me I shouldn’t have gotten out of the car. I never felt like I was in danger. I am white.
We have to change this.
We as humans are able to analyze and overcome our basic animalistic instincts. We are able to use our intelligence to empathize, to recognize our common humanity, and to work hard to overcome our inherent biases and prejudices.
We can make a difference one conversation at a time, one story at a time, one friendship at a time. Each of us has the ability to change our own perception, our own biases. Through our own actions, we can influence others to find our common humanity.
We can look for the things that unite us, that bring us together, that lift us all up as one. And we can learn to recognize that we are all part of the same tribe. We are all human. We are all worthy of equal protection, equal rights, and equal treatment. Even though we are each unique and none of us is like the other, all of us belong.