The population of my neighborhood is diverse in every way you can imagine, cutting across the spectrum of race, creed, sexual-orientation, socioeconomics and age. Because of its proximity to Manhattan, there are many languages spoken, and on any given day during my daily river walk, I hear accents and languages from the Near, Middle, and Far East; Africa; Australia; Western and Eastern Europe; Indonesia; and anywhere you can name in North, Central or South America. Depending on your mindset—opportunities abound for profiling stereotypes or understanding the complexity of individuals.
I think we imagine profiling as originating in the psyches of people in power for the purpose of retaining power over others. When our English and Dutch forefathers dominated the ruling class of America, they created profiles and stereotypes of the immigrant Irish, Italians, Germans, Polish, etc. As these cultures became increasingly more entrenched in American society and accepting of each other, they in turn profiled the Asian, Mexican, Latin American, Indonesian, and Filipino cultures. All of these cultures are guilty of profiling African Americans, women and gays. If you’re all three, you have no doubt felt the painful effects of profiling exponentially more than most. Within our own country we stereotype each other North and South, East, West, and Midwest, democrats and republicans, and you name the religion. We love to box people in and exclude them from our clubs.
Even though it appears that throughout history profiling has occurred from the top down—from majority to minority, this is not exactly true. In order to understand its depth and power in today’s society, it’s useful to understand profiling not as an exclusionary tool of power by a ruling class, (though it can certainly be used that way), but as a basic human tendency. A tendency rooted in real or imagined fear—fear of being misunderstood, of being invalidated, of being in some way harmed physically, psychologically or financially. Even though for some these fears may have been valid at one time or another, profiles stay alive long after any basis for fear exists.
If you were to examine my life, I think you would find mostly a history of open-mindedness and compassion, minus a few admittedly dusty corners of assumption and presumption about others. Although fiscally centrist, I mostly vote in favor of the underdog who needs a hand-up, because there by the grace of God go I. So you can imagine how I felt as the butt of a joke in a comedy club a few years back when an African-American comedian pointed at me and mocked me as the perfect example of a “rich castrating dumb blonde suburban PTA right-wing republican dominatrix.” What?! The most surprising part of this for me was that I was being profiled at all. That this is how some people actually saw me. I realized then that profiling is not the domain of one group or another. Rather, it’s a universal human tendency to put each other in boxes we can easily label and control. That someone would do that to me meant that somebody and some group feared me, which for me was a radical and disturbing concept. What was there to fear? Obviously something.
Yesterday in the grocery store parking lot of my again—incredibly diverse neighborhood, I was trying to back out. There were so many cars and people coming and going, that it was no surprise when two of us gently knocked each other’s bumpers. I jumped out to make sure the other party was ok (there are a lot of elderly here as well) and that my larger car hadn’t damaged his smaller one. I barely got out before the other driver—a man with a thick European accent—screamed obscenities which included, “You miserable stupid *&^*& American suburbanite driving a car too big for you that you have no idea how to drive…etc. etc. Get a *#&$*# car you can drive!”
Neither of us had any damage whatsoever to our cars, so there was no physical harm done. But for me it drove home the idea that as humans, we are always looking for a way to exclude someone from our incredibly elite circle of whatever: intelligence, coolness, talent, ability, wealth, education, gender, religion, etc. It doesn’t even matter what it is. Even though I looked as if I came from his own family, he was hell-bent on separating himself from me in some hurtful way. On passing blame.
If we all—from every spectrum of life—acknowledge that in addition to being profiled, we also profile others we fear, despise, or in some way can’t relate to, maybe we can stop it.