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What is the relationship between you and your identity?

| Thursday, April 4, 2019

What is the relationship between you and your identity?

Broadly speaking, “stereotyping” is a social phenomenon in which a whole genre of people — who, in reality, are wonderfully diverse in personal beliefs and behaviors — are mentally condensed into a single, misshapen caricature. Stereotypes arise in our minds as the result of inductive and deductive biases. An example of poor induction is when we interact with somebody of a given race and mistakenly believe that they are representative of everybody in their race. And an example of deduction is when we think that because a person belongs to this race, they must have a given set of characteristics. These “shortcuts” of stereotyping are illusory and socially harmful. When we make decisions based on stereotypes, we unconsciously practice identity discrimination.

What is the relationship between you and your identity?

Stereotypes might produce hurtful, interpersonally painful experiences. Last year, I took a course on the history of modern Africa. In a Friday discussion group, a fellow student in the class asked the only female African student in the section about her experience with female genital mutilation (the given topic of discussion that day) — in front of over one dozen other undergraduates and a graduate student TA. With a horrified look on her face, she replied that she had never encountered it when she grew up in Tanzania. From my third-party perspective, the exchange was incredibly uncomfortable, and it revealed the faulty deductive mechanism at play in my peer’s mind — because she is African, she must have gone through this. Imagine how the female African student felt.

What is the relationship between you and your identity?

Not all discrimination is inflicted in person. It can happen at a distance. Last year a Yale graduate student of color fell asleep in a dorm common room, only to awaken to the interrogation of campus police officers (another student called the police on her because she appeared suspicious). When stereotypes are interchangeable with authentic identities, we systematically act on those stereotypes, and they become existentially damaging. Take, for example job candidates who are less likely to receive callbacks because of the ethnic sound of their names (despite their relevant experience and qualifications), drivers who are more likely to be pulled over due to the color of their skin (rather than the quality of their driving) or apartment seekers who are subject to discriminatory housing practices due to their perceived gender identities.

What is the relationship between you and your identity?

At a low level, our identity-based discriminatory practices as college students might appear to have no consequences. Think of your own life at Notre Dame. Have you ever overheard a conversation in the dining hall that grossly mischaracterized Native Americans, but reasoned that it was no big deal because there appeared to be no indigenous students in the vicinity? Have you ever “liked” a blatantly homophobic meme in your dorm GroupMe, and thought it was fine because you yourself did not send it into the groupchat? Were you silent? What happens when we permit insensitivity to live on? What happens when the same people that mischaracterize ethnicities and casually employ slurs ascend to positions of societal power, such as judges, bankers, politicians, property owners or even commander-in-chief?

What is the relationship between you and your identity?

Identity-based discrimination is real, and it ruins lives. As students of privilege, it is up to us to root out the underlying stereotypes that we encounter on a daily basis and to encourage others to do the same. Stepping up and speaking out is not easy, fun or, in all instances, successful. But to get somebody else to critically consider the relationship between us and our identities — if only for a moment — is worth it.

 

Adam Kulam is a senior and can be reached at [email protected]

The views expressed in this column are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.

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