PROFILING

 "There's a Mexican family living next door to us." "Our mailman is an African-American. I met a nice Jewish man today." "I ran into the Korean lady who works at the market." "Our gay friends came over."

   Stephen Colbert used to regularly insist that he "doesn't see color." He was playing a part, of course, that of the hypocritical political pundit who - of course - really does "see color." I don't know Stephen Colbert personally, but I'd be willing to bet that - in real life - he does "see color," also. We all do. We see color; we see race; we see religion; we see sexual orientation. If we didn't, why would we talk the way we do; why would we include racial/ethnic/religious descriptors in our everyday chit-chat? Almost all of us do it.

   Often, such talk doesn't mean anything. If you identify a person as Mexican, it doesn't mean you're "prejudiced" against Mexicans. If you mention a person's sexual orientation, it doesn't mean you "hate gays." But, in each case, you're seeing something in the person that is "different," and it's a selective difference, and one you feel needs to be pointed out. But why? My father was half-German, but I don't think anybody ever described him as a "German-American." Even during the War Years, when Americans did hate and fear Germans, he was just an average "white" person.

   I could make some of the above sentences meaningful, and pertinent. For example: "To celebrate Cinco de Mayo, the Mexican family next door had a real fiesta, with piñatas and a mariachi band." Or: "I had a really interesting talk with our African-American mailman about how the voting rights laws affected him, personally." But, in general, the adjectives we add are unnecessary, and they are divisive.

   Twenty years ago, I wrote a novel about the interactions of people in a local christian church. When I invented the characters, I gave each of them specific personalities - I decided how I wanted them to react in various circumstances, and how I wanted them to relate to other people - but I purposely gave them names that (in the United States in the mid- to late 20th Century) could fit almost anybody. I could have made the young wife with the fiery temper an Hispanic - so her husband could say "there goes my hot-blooded Latin lover, again!" I could have called the clearly-prejudiced man "Jim Bob." But how would such stereotypes have advanced the story? Tempers are not limited to Latinos, and prejudice is not the personal property of some Southern white men. I wanted the story to be about you and me. I sort of hoped that someone would read the book, and ask me why there were no African-Americans in it, or no Orientals, or no Mexicans. Not enough people ever read the book to make that very likely.  But, if someone had read it and then asked the question, I would have liked to say, "How do you know there are none in the story? How do you know that Pete and Donna Newsom are not a Black couple? How do you know that Jennie Grayson is not 100 percent Japanese, but identified by her husband's western European surname? Maybe the woman with the fiery "Latin" temper really is a fiery Latin: so what?"

  Obviously, there are times when appearance is pertinent. "The robber was a White male in his 30s." "The missing child has Hispanic features." "You'll know me; look for the tall Black man with the blue tie." But, if you think about it, in everyday talk, a person's features, religion, sex, age, etc., are often irrelevant. Try policing yourself. See how often you are "profiling" without cause. Then, quit it.


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