You might think that by now enough time has passed and humanity has evolved enough that people wouldn’t dismiss or dislike other people out of hand. But one of the roots of racism keeps it alive and active, as you see every day in political campaigns, on the news, and perhaps even in the grocery store.Today we’re going to talk about mindlessness.racism-is-taught-break-the-cycle

Ellen Langer, Ph.D. of Harvard University studies the concept of mindlessness – particularly the stereotypes that people apply to other people. Just to be sure that we’re clear on terms, stereotypes are assumptions that you make about a group based upon a sample size of a few.  For instance, if a person is…

  • Wearing tattoos and piercings – must be a criminal
  • Wearing a suit – must be a manager
  • Certain color of skin – must be smart, stupid, poor, greedy, wealthy, overly emotional, an alcoholic, etc.
  • Over a certain age – must be old-fashioned and closed-minded
  • Under a certain age – must be stupid and impulsive

You get the idea, and you also know that the list of stereotypes is far longer than that. The perceived benefit of holding stereotypes in your head is this: it’s less work for you to be mindless and make assumptions about what certain factors mean than it is to invest the time and energy to really get to know somebody. They might have the outward appearance of a thug and the heart of a poet once you have a chance to get acquainted. (Or they might look like a solid citizen, yet have the values of a criminal!)

Why this is important right now

In an election year with so much at stake, you can see how an uninformed voting populous could go with the “easy” choice, one that is based upon assumptions. “He is an R (or a D) so he must have my interests in mind,” or “He is too old for the office,” or “She is related to so and so, and therefore would be just like so and so.” Such assumptions based upon limited information can create massive impact when they are widespread enough to swing an election outcome.

The impact of positive stereotypes

Stereotypes, racial or otherwise, aren’t necessarily negative. My daughters were born in China, and I can’t tell you how many times people have said things to me like, “You know THEY are all really smart,” or “I’ve heard THEY’RE all good in math.” I suppose it’s better that the girls are benefiting in a way from a positive expectation because they’ll attempt to rise to meet it. On the other hand, the expectations for them, and for other people surrounded by a halo of assumptions, can be pretty daunting and lead to perfectionism, frustration, etc. Even positive stereotypes can be damaging.

Mindlessness keeps the “isms” alive

There’s been recurring debate about whether racism, ageism, sexism, and all of the other-isms have waned as our society has become more aware of them. The answer to the question depends upon where you sit. Some people might have “evolved” heightened sensitivity about such matters, but at the same time society has also heightened its desire for speed and efficiency. You can’t just apply the principles of cycle time reduction to the process of really getting to know someone. So it’s still tempting to break your legs jumping to conclusions about who or what somebody is based on limited information.

Another point to make in this mindlessness discussion is that the more experience you have at placing people into categories, however arbitrary, the bigger the risk that you won’t take the time to really get to know someone in the future before derawing conclusions. I might be fairly open-minded about someone from a “category” that I’ve never experienced before, but I quickly begin racking up observations that I can apply to the next person who appears to fit the mold. The next person I meet might fall victim to my mindless pigeon-holing of them before they say even one word to me.

If your primary motivators are efficiency and self-protection, then you might be using stereotypes more than you realize. If, however, you shift your focus to leadership, to opportunity and relationship building you have a shot at becoming more mindful – and giving THIS person in front of you and the next after that a real opportunity to know and be known by you.