#1: Filling in the Blanks and Creating Categories

I wrote a story about a woman who was raped by a white ex-boyfriend from an affluent suburb.

Does anything leap to mind when you think about who rapes? The kind of values they grew up with?

A friend confessed to me what she thought about when she heard the story. She instinctively imagined this rapist was a boy of privilege and sexist, arrogant values taught by an ego-centric father and a dismissed or dismissive mother. But then she learned from me who he was. Someone raised in a progressive family around the corner from her. A background associated with the Waldorf school. That didn’t make sense to her.

Before she knew who he was, she had instinctively categorized him.

We do this sort of thing regularly, without thinking. (See growing resources about bias.) It is why we have the Black Lives Matter movement, for example.

How much of what we “see” is because we expect to see it? Because we’ve been trained to assume and believe a certain storyline?

How our brains categorize is taught

What we choose to see, how we categorize, is not instinctive. It is about the values we’ve been taught.

Herders in Africa, for example, have different words that distinguish the color of their cattle. That does not mean they have more varieties of cattle than we do — only that they see and describe them differently than we do.

One innovative classroom example of this was taught by Jane Elliott in her Iowa third grade classrooms, starting after Martin Luther King Jr. was shot. She arbitrarily declared that all blue-eyed children were superior and all brown-eyed students were inferior. In one day, her cooperative young kids became combative, and their classroom performance was impacted.

“All your inhibitions were gone… you had a chance to get it all out…. I felt like I was a king… I was better than them….”