Painting with a wide brush


“Guess it’s welfare day out here,” the man behind me was saying as we stood in an unusually long line at the Wal-Mart checkout counter early one Thursday afternoon. I’d got out of work early, and broke my usual routine hoping to miss the Friday-afternoon slowdown by the college. But the plan had backfired, and I found myself waiting in a slow-moving line, the captive recipient of a tow-truck driver’s conversation.

“It just makes me mad,” he was saying, eyeing a cart full of junk food ahead of us, calculating, I guess, how many of his tax dollars were going toward the gentleman wearing the T-shirt emblazoned with a woman’s ample and fairly exposed rear-end.

I didn’t see anyone pulling out handfuls of food stamps or special government-issued debit cards in the lines around us, but for a moment I agreed. Nearly everyone I could see was overweight to the point of obesity. They looked disheveled, a little dirty, and not particularly intelligent. They primarily had overflowing carts filled with, well, food that continued the trend toward morbid obesity. And for a moment I grumbled inwardly about how much better I could be spending that money if only I had got to keep it.

And then I realized how easy it is to slip into vague generalizations and downright prejudice based on nothing more than a person’s physical characteristics or economic status. Poor does not equal unintelligent (nor does stupidity equal poverty). Needing some help from the local WIC office does not equal deadbeat. And making poor health and style decisions does not equal subsisting on someone else’s tax dollars. So many assumptions in that one thought!

A recent study commissioned by CNN and performed by child psychologist and University of Chicago professor Margaret Beale Spencer determined that children are already ingrained with racial prejudice. As a whole, the pilot study claimes that white children associate lighter skin with good traits and darker skin with bad traits. Black children do as well, though to a lesser extant, the study claims.

The study blames racial prejudice, but to an extent I think it’s misdiagnosing the problem. For whatever reason, children tend to like what is similar to them and dislike or be afraid of what is different. Children in a school playground pick on each other’s differences; unique is often an insult. (That doesn’t explain why even black children think lighter skin is better, that concerns me more).

But I think it highlights a natural but not commendable habit of looking at a world painted with broad brushes and stark contrasts. Children and adults naturally have a “us versus them” mentality. And we’re adept at deceiving ourselves. I would never even think of discriminating against someone based on the color of their skin, and yet I make huge, sweeping assumptions about the people standing line with me while I’m waiting in line to buy my milk and eggs. My liberal friends think conservaties are uneducated and unreasoning. My conservative friends think liberals are out for a free lunch. Hispanic? Probably here illegally.

And we never really stop to ask, is this true or is this just another assumption we’ve picked up somewhere?

So no, Mr. Tow-truck Man, I don’t guess it’s welfare day at Wal-Mart, because how could I possibly know that?

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3 Comments

Filed under Opinions, People, Places

3 responses to “Painting with a wide brush

  1. Jesse Smith

    “A recent study commissioned by CNN and performed by child psychologist and University of Chicago professor Margaret Beale Spencer determined that children are already ingrained with racial prejudice. As a whole, the pilot study claimes that white children associate lighter skin with good traits and darker skin with bad traits. Black children do as well, though to a lesser extant, the study claims.

    “The study blames racial prejudice, but to an extent I think it’s misdiagnosing the problem. For whatever reason, children tend to like what is similar to them and dislike or be afraid of what is different. Children in a school playground pick on each other’s differences; unique is often an insult. (That doesn’t explain why even black children think lighter skin is better, that concerns me more).”

    With a few additions of my own, this is how my dad explains the phenomenon:

    Perhaps Pavlov could shed some light on this subject. He’s the one who rang a bell when he feed his dog, until just ringing the bell caused the dog to assume the physiological state associated with eating whenever the bell was rung, (even without food present.)

    Now, at a fairly young age children learn that the dark is dangerous. One is more likely to run into things in the dark, so their i what is around; additionally most children hear about thieves coming at night & what child doesn’t know that the only safe place in the dark is under the covers? They quickly develop a heightened awareness of trouble in the dark.

    Next they see a dark-skinned person, their iris pulls back to let more light in through the pupil in an attempt to help see the person (specifically their face) better, triggering the subconscious knowledge of everything that is dangerous about the dark, & associating it with the dark-skinned person. Anything uncomfortable that happens strengthens the connection & wariness of the dark, while anything good that happens weakens the connection, but cannot break it because the Night still comes.

  2. Denise Barwell

    Really thoughtful (and well-written) post, Heather. I love the connection you made w/ Spencer’s work.

  3. Thank you! How much longer are you in Guatemala, by the way?

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