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Recovering backpacker, Cornwallite at heart, political enthusiast, catalyst, writer, husband, father, community volunteer, unabashedly proud Canadian. Every hyperlink connects to something related directly or thematically to that which is highlighted.

Thursday 27 June 2013

Stimga and Straining the Limits of Perception

"We know that racialized youth face challenges with marginalisation, racism, employment barriers, education setbacks, and social and cultural isolation that can have a negative impact on their development."

Earlier in the month I was at a downtown Toronto event - a typically diverse crowd spanning age, gender, ethnicity, everything.  Towards the beginning of this event I was talking with a Korean-Canadian friend, Mr. Chung; fifties, average height, a little overweight.  A young "white" guy I knew came up to say hi to me and I introduced the two of them.

Towards the end of the night, my Caucasian friend came back to me to say goodbye. He had carefully remembered my Korean friend's name and said bye to the East Asian man I was talking with.

One problem - it wasn't the same guy.

As the night wound down I was speaking to a Chinese-Canadian who'd barely turned forty and was in good shape.

Put my Korean-Canadian friend and my Chinese-Canadian friend side by side, I could easily tell them apart. Given time my white friend would have learned to do the same, but right then and there, he could have been looking at silhouettes.  To him, they looked the same.

You could call that ignorance or a passive form of racism.  Me, I know it as a limitation of cognitive capacity.  It's something I have seen the world over, have experienced from both sides.  People, especially those of limited exposure to diversity are prone to generalizations.

 If I put a set of identical twins in front of you, you'd probably couldn't tell them apart.  Get to know those two individuals, though, and you'll begin to spot subtle differences in freckles, body mass, personality.  With time, you'll learn to clearly and quickly identify which twin is which, even if you don't see them together. Unless, that is, you don't associate any value in developing nuanced perspectives.   if you'd rather see the world as black and white, your brain will literally push back against the cognitive strain in the way muscles ache when they're exercised.

This is a pretty significant thing to understand as it explains stigma, why we fail to design social infrastructure that's inclusive and why we often fail to design services for end-users.  It's why George Bush preferred giving people nicknames instead of bothering to learn their given names and why Rob Ford doesn't think bikes belong on roads "designed for cars."

Bigotry is ignorance and ignorance is natural. We generalize because we need to; new stimuli must be rapidly assessed for potential threat (which is why simple narratives tend to focus on negatives). If we couldn't do that, new stimuli that could harm us wouldn't get properly assessed.  Why do wild animals unexposed to people not feel threatened by them? Because they have no memory file that tells them they should.

Why do people unexposed to other ethnicity tend to stigmatise The Other? Because we have a mental model of what people look like - us.  If something kinda looks like what it should but kinda doesn't, like a person who is unhealthy, we're programed for threat response.

The exact opposite formula explains why beautiful people have less employment challenges that unattractive ones.  We stigmatise in favour of visual cues on how we perceive health first, everything else after.

This might sound alarming to you - after all, the basic message is that we're not in control of how we think. That alarm bell you're feeling is the burn of your cognitive muscle flexing.  Ponder it a while and you'll be comfortable with the notion that humans run more on autopilot than we are in conscious control.

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