We were stuck in the grocery store parking lot as the sun was setting in a sketchy part of town. My Singaporean visitors were wondering how this adventure was going to run its course. A group of women hovering around a car that won’t start, very quickly runs out of ideas for mechanical solutions. After rescue calls to my husband and the AAA, we couldn’t do much else but wait. As we chatted and kept a watch out for any danger, an elderly African American gentleman approached us and offered to attempt a jump start. Believe me, this is not the kind of place you want to be approached by anyone; but he had very kind eyes and a gentle demeanor, and after all there were four of us, so we took him up on the offer.
His old pickup didn’t look like it could even start itself up, let alone power up my soccer mom van. But he was keen to try, so no harm in letting him. We had time. As he clamped on the jumper cables, we engaged in a back and forth exchange of where-are-you-from, why-do-you-have-Louisiana-plates, and what-do-you-think-is-wrong, which eventually lead to a question about my friends. Are they your sisters, maybe your daughters?
Let me stop and reset the scene. I’m a very pale Caucasian with graying blond hair. My three Chinese Singaporean friends have jet black hair and look distinctly Asian.
Back to the story … So he asks me if they are my sisters, or my daughters. What? You’re kidding, right? They’re Chinese! Do I look Chinese? Do I really look that much older?
To which he replied, “You white people all look the same to me”.
I was speechless. He was just calling it like he saw it. He wasn’t kidding around. This was what we looked like to him. I cherished his gentle and genuine spirit all the more for having spoken a plain truth that opened my eyes wider.
The messsage to me: I don’t belong to the only race that thinks other races all look the same.
I was amazed. I thought whites were more distinctive, different hair colors, eye colors, skin features like freckles, etc. Apparently not so to an outsider. I can easily think of groups of things that all look the same to me, like all small birds, American cars, leafy greens, etc., but white people too? Still wowed by this.
I was reminded of the parking lot moment of enlightenment this week when I read a discussion of the psychological phenomenon at play in this encounter. A chapter in the “Organized Mind” talks about the out-group homogeneity effect. Daniel Levitin describes many situations where this phenomenon can contribute to societal divisions.
Because everyone in a group we don’t belong to (i.e. an out-group) appears to us to be the same (i.e. homogeneous), we automatically ascribe any general characteristics of that group to everyone in that group. Think politics, religion, class, and pretty much any preference group you care to name, such as music, food, movies, etc. Characteristics of our ‘out-groups’ easily spill over into the negative — either by virtue of fear, exclusion, birth or lack of data.
We see the others in our ‘in-groups’ however, as being more unique, so we treat them as individuals, rather than projecting the group generalizations on to them. And of course, there is an in-group bias. We are drawn to them, as they belong to our group.
I’m thinking about this, as I consider the upcoming political season in the US. I’ll be watching and considering the ‘out-groups’ around me with different eyes. What am I projecting on to them, that doesn’t apply to them individually? After last night’s debate, I have lots of questions.