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  • Terri

Why we profile other people.

Photo by Markus Spiske on Unsplash

When I was a teenager, I got followed by strangers a few times a month. I don’t mean catcalling, I mean someone random followed me for several blocks and tried to find out where I lived. Sometimes they caught up to me to try to grab my hand and ask my name. One night I was walking my dog just after dinner time and I got approached by two men. One of them was very vocal about how he’d like to take me to Cuba to make me his wife. I was twelve, this man was easily in his forties. I’ve been grabbed for my hand, shoulder, hips too many times and sometimes they caressed my cheek or chin. I’m still nervous to go outside and I get uncomfortable when someone talks to me or walks too close to me. The saddest part of this story is that, except for one case, they were all black men. I couldn’t help but hold my breath when someone who fits that profile looked at me. If someone like that greeted me, I’d walk on and pretend they didn’t exist, since that seemed to be the best way to make them leave me alone. For all I know, someone might have just meant to ask for directions. Luckily, after I moved to a completely different area and became conscious of this problem, I had a chance to reset my frame of reference. This internal profiling doesn’t influence my behavior as much anymore. When I am in a horrid mood I still default to a dismissive attitude, but now indiscriminately: I give no one the time of day. No one in that environment would have blamed me for feeling nervous around darker people, even some colored people were nervous about other colored. When a friend of mine from South-Africa visited me, even he felt tensed walking down the street. There is a reason that we profile, or that there are stereotypes, and that reason is called the frame of reference. The frame of reference. Social psychology says that when we are in a situation where we do not have all the facts, we use our internal frame of reference to fill in the blanks based on patterns we’ve experienced in the past. In my case, because I had been bothered so many times by people with a similar profile, I started making assumptions based on my experience. Notably, the skin color wasn’t the only factor or even the deciding factor for survival to kick in, other features weighted in. Factors like: -if it’s a man -if he’s looking at me -the type of clothes he was wearing. Most men who harassed me wore baggy clothes, puffy coats, usually a cap, and had noticeable jewelry. A colored man wearing casual or formal clothes made me less nervous, and if he didn’t look at me, I felt fine. Profiling through your frame of reference depends on more than just someone’s skin. So, is it still racist? What makes it a complicated question to answer, is that if I saw a white guy with baggy jeans, heavy jewelry (a bit of an alto looking guy), I thought he was cute (since I was an alto teen myself). What was the difference, I thought to myself? The skin color. It is an instinct, first and foremost. The frame of reference is part of our psychological survival kit, it’s no different from learning to avoid dogs if you’ve been bitten a few times. But it becomes hurtful when someone is treated differently because of something someone else did. You see a watered-down version of this on social media. When a certain race is involved and the news confirms something stereotypical about them, the brains of the masses register it as a reinforcement of their frame of reference. But in a lot of those cases, they don’t have any personal experience to justify what their frame of reference is telling them. They just like to have their beliefs affirmed to justify their actions. I have other profiles in my frame of reference. There is a combination of features combined with striped tracksuits that give me the heebeejeebees. These features are pale skin, short-shaven hair, and Nike shoes. If a black guy wears Nike’s and a tracksuit, no matter what else he has, I feel perfectly fine. It’s never a conscious response either, sometimes I can feel the nerves playing up before I even realize that it’s a person that’s making me nervous. If you recognize what I describe, it can help you understand your own reactions. You cannot completely suppress it, it’s hardwired into you to use patterns to understand the world around you. But if you’re aware that your conclusions might be based on your frame of reference, that kind of clarity can prevent a lot of misunderstandings, make you more aware of what you’re doing, and why you do it. Let’s go back to the instance where a black man approached me and I ignored him. For all I know, he just meant to ask for directions. His frame of reference will tell him the most likely reason why someone like me might ignore him, and reinforce his view of the world. Awareness and clarity of your frame of reference can help break the cycle.

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