Sunday, July 5, 2009

Instant Labeling

I feel the job of the human mind is to take an incredibly incomplete picture and fill in the blank. Sometimes it gets it right and sometimes it gets it wrong…

I’ve always been interested in how we perceive other people. Heres my attempt at a partial model of sorts. So you see someone you know nothing about for the first time, what happens? Unconsciously, your mind begins working to define them using the information before you, this is very limited information. Where are you meeting them? What are they wearing? What do they look like? How old are they? You get the point.

Based on this small amount of surface-level information you make certain assumptions about them and their identity… you fill in the blanks.

To do this you focus on what stands out. If I meet a woman wearing a headscarf I suddenly recognize and identify that person as a “Muslim woman,” now she may be a doctor and a sister and a science fiction fan and an excellent tennis player, and many of these labels may be far more essential to who she is than her assumed faith, but I’m working with an incomplete picture and I need to fill in the blanks. All I know is that she is wearing a headscarf and until I make the effort to learn more about her this is what I will remember her as, because this is what makes her stand out. Once this instant label has been determined, the mind retrieves everything you associate with the label.

What often frustrates people in a minority group that can immediately be identified is that they can not escape their label. What stands out about them becomes their primary identity to the outside world. I think this is one reason (among many) why there is a certain level of comfort is an environment where you are surrounded by people who share your trait. An example I heard recently... if you are a black student at a Historically Black College or University you can establish an identity beyond your race. It becomes easier to be an individual.

Something to think about: if you’re instant label is that of a person with a disability, how does this effect how people view you and your actions? The words fragile and pity come to mind... I'm sure I'll write a seperate post on that question later.

Last thing, here are some other perspectives. In a recent post, Andrew talked about the plus side of this, the ability to receive accommodations. His example is that if a person in a wheelchair is going down the sidewalk you are able to recognize that they have a disability and accommodate it by stepping to the side. David also touched on this in a comment on one of my posts where he talked about often carrying a cane not because he needed it to cross the street, but because it allowed him to be identified as disabled and then people would be more willing to help him read street signs. “So I bring the cane so they know I can't see and when I ask, they think, ‘Oh it's a blind person. Let me do my good deed for the day and help them out.’”

Anyways, have a good week!

Rohmteen Mokhtari

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