Monday, January 17, 2011

Honest Assessments

A hat tip to one of my favorite blogs (humorous, honest, AND scholarly), We Are Respectable Negroes for this clip from Howard Stern. I don't remember all the controversy around Howard Stern, but I know there is controversy, and I know you probably won't want to listen to this whole thing. But listen to some of it. It's abrasive, and I'm sure some people will find it racist. But it's honest- there's no denying that race exists, and there's no denying that we make assessments about what we see based on our presumptions and assumptions about race.

Howard Stern talks with a (real??) trash collector about how he knows whose trash he's looking at just by looking at it. At first, Stern, the trash collector, and a woman are playing a guessing game- does a sample can belong to a black person, a Spanish (!) person, a white person, or a Jewish person. The categories alone are interesting, and a chance for a dialogue about racial categories, but this isn't really about breaking down this clip, or discussing Howard Stern and the trash man. They start talking about how the trash dude can tell whose trash is whose by how the trash is bagged, where the trash can is positioned at a house, what is in the can. What would people in each of these groups DO with the stuff that becomes their trash? How do people eat that makes their trash? Would they be home-owners or renters? Then, the trash man starts talking about backyards, where he might encounter the trashcans. Are they trashy (eek)? Etc.

What I have been thinking about since I heard this in mid-December was that it was REAL. We do make this kind of assessment all the time, at least I do, both on and off the job. Not just racial assessments, although I think it's extremely important to acknowledge those, since this is the era of denying race, being "colorblind. For example, the Year of the Bug shot that I just posted, was very close to my house. Without even showing my neighborhood, you can tell that I live near a freeway where people dump trash. There's broken glass and a tag on the sidewalk. And if you didn't know me, you'd also know that I have a pit bull, a dog often associated with a "rough neighborhood." I have a tough time separating myself from my neighborhood and my dog and making an assessment of it, but others might, just from looking at that picture? What do you see?

When I go into neighborhoods, or even just read a call without knowing where it is, I make assumptions. When I do adoption screening, I make assumptions. I hate that I do this when I do adoption counseling. I find that it can be helpful when I am in the field, as long as I am aware that I do it. In the case of adoption counseling, I tend to make assumptions about the kind of dogs that people will select based on their appearance and race, the way they carry themselves, the way they speak. This is racist, and I believe that the majority of people doing adoption counseling do this, whether they acknowledge it or not. I believe people judge people of their own race and social status, and have witnessed it. Chinese coworkers have "warned" me that Chinese people coming in to adopt will want a German Shepherd to stay outside and be a guard dog, because that's "a cultural thing." I have told coworkers that Spanish speakers often use the word "inside" to mean "inside the yard" as opposed to running loose. Many people who are new to "modern" pet ownership don't know what declawing is, and only know that their parents did it. I don't think that my peer's biases are questioned very often. I try to acknowledge to myself that I have these biases each time they arise, and put them aside, as each person is an individual. When collecting trash, it has to be picked up, no matter what. It's ok to make assumptions and then throw the trash away, as long as the assumptions don't bleed into your daily life and become toxic. When dealing with people, you have to make adjustments.

When I'm in the field, I often find myself spontaneously guessing where a call will be, or who I will be dealing with. I question myself when I do this, even though my guesses are often accurate. For example, even though cock fighting nation-wide is associated with all races, in my jurisdiction, it's almost universally associated with Hispanics. Even further, 90% of the cock fighting takes place in a certain segment of the city. At one point, I was dealing with so many cockfighters that when I would see rooster "lawn art," I would assume that the residents were Hispanic and further, that they were associated with cockfighting. This is like one of those Venn Diagrams, and it's a falsehood. I was making an unfair leap, like the trash collector. Most cockfighters in my jurisdiction are Hispanics, but most Hispanics are definitively NOT cockfighters, and many people appreciate roosters and are not cockfighters nor Hispanic.

Calls about chained up dogs are the same way- people across all races still chain up their dogs, even though it's been illegal in California for several years. People of all races have pit bulls (including me). People of all races chain up their pit bulls. When I pull up to a house where I've received a call about a chained up pit bull, sometimes I find myself guessing what I will be dealing with. Generally, the most useful assessment is about economic status. Very few people who chain their pit bulls are wealthy, and I've talked about this before. My theory about this is partially about social status as well as economic status. With economic status comes education, and the more educated you are, the more likely you are to know your local laws. Many people I deal with really don't know that tethering is illegal. They also don't have access to the internet to learn this, or even any other resource to become educated on changes in the law that affect them as animal owners. In my jurisdiction, again, this kind of educational and economic poverty tends to land in certain areas in the city. Sure, there are other reasons why people have pit bulls, and why people chain up pit bulls (one of the main ones is inadequate fencing. This can be because of the nature of the yard or because of money, again. The landlord isn't going to fix the yard, and many people lack the money to fix the fence). When I see a call, or even the actual chained up pit bull, I make assessments based on the neighborhood, the house, the fence, and the dog owner, often in that order.

I am not making judgements, on myself, or on the reader, if you're also assessing yourself and your assessments. I'm acknowledging that I do this, that it happens. I'm trying to move forward. Sometimes my assessments are accurate, but that doesn't mean that I should let them stop me from assessing each situation and each person as an individual. Generalizations don't serve anyone well.

How do you preconceive situations? What are your markers? What kind of neighborhood do you think I live in (if you don't know me)? What do you think of my neighborhood if you DO know me? What are the kinds of things you use, useful or not, to pre-judge? How do you catch yourself? Do you find these pre-judgements useful?


Jennie said...

I took high level seminar style, stereotyping and prejudice course my second year of college, and one of the pieces of research we explored showed that everyone tested knew and had internalized stereotypes of ethnic groups. However, some people (identified as "low-prejudice") had very carefully trained themselves to quickly, subconsciously, suppress their initial reaction based on the stereotype.

Acknowledgment is hard. It takes a strong person to understand that it's necessary to be able to move past stereotyping and treat people as individuals.