From the professor’s desk:
Our brains sort and categorize the things we see in our environment – it’s the way cognition works. As we move through the world, we sort stimuli into categories like “tree, house, car, person,” as a shortcut to making sense of our world. This process helps to protect us (remember, most unconscious processes are designed for our preservation). We have categories for “dangers,” so we know what to avoid.
We also categorize people: woman, man, child, black, white, tall, short, slender, overweight, young, old … and by a million other traits. Many of these traits are socially constructed (what does it mean to be “short?”), and the associations we connect with them are socially constructed too (“fat is unattractive”). Is this type of categorization useful?
In class, we talk about the stereotyping process, which consists of the following steps: (1) observe a person, (2) categorize that person, (3) recall generalizations about that category of person, and (4) assume those generalizations apply to the individual you’re observing. We talk about how the first two steps are unconscious, but the last two can be interrupted if we increase our awareness of what our brains are doing.
Let’s keep all this at the forefront of our minds as we move through the world today. First, it’s a natural process, not a character flaw, to categorize people. Second, our brains are trying to protect us (actually, it’s a little gland in the brain called the amygdala that triggers a fear response). And third, we can work at being a little more aware of when we’re recalling generalizations and applying them to individuals. This will help us to interrupt the stereotyping process, and to break the cycle.