We often act as if we possess super human clairvoyant powers. A stranger crosses our path and all we need is a glimpse of their appearance — their clothes, their haircut — and we start assuming that we know what kind of person they are.
As soon as we identify, the instantaneous reflex is to classify. We are all profiling. We can't say what kind of person you are, but we can say that you look like a certain type of person. And this is not entirely groundless. To the extent that appearance expresses preference, how somebody looks does say something about them. We may not be able to judge a book by its cover, but we can know where to file it.
This instinct becomes especially problematic when people start making assumptions based on factors such as skin color. What makes racial profiling so dangerous is not merely that it is about race, but that the impulse behind it runs so deep. We are so accustomed to thinking of profiling as a prelude to violence or the exercise of power that we forget that it begins with this primal fear of the unknown. When we instantly assume that we know something about the stranger in front of us, we are transforming the unknown into the known. This may offer some reassurance, but, like any act of alchemy, it is a false promise.
This tendency, however, is like any of the other surges of appetite and fear that light up our brains: we can acknowledge the feeling without acting on it. There is a choice in all these encounters. We can accept that we don't know, or we can assume that we do. All the "isms" that poison our world begin with the belief that we only have to know one thing about a person and we can fill in the rest of the blanks.
There is an alternative available to all of us. As we move through a world where we encounter far more strangers than friends, we can recognize that not knowing somebody is the first step in getting to know them, not an excuse for assuming that we already do.
With a Perspective, this is Paul Staley.
Paul Staley works for a housing no-profit. He lives in San Francisco.