Wednesday, July 31, 2013

It's Dangerous to Make Assumptions

 Today is Wednesday, July 31, 2013. 

"In the middle of the night, when you're ambiguously ethnic, like me, when you're brown, beige, mauve, sienna, one of those lighter browns in the Crayola box. You have to be careful of the cops and robbers, because nobody's quite sure what you are, but everybody has assumptions.
  –Sherman Alexie 

 President Obama spoke about assumptions that white people make about blacks.  He mentioned hearing locks click as cars passed him on the street.  He saw women clutch their handbag a bit tighter when they were with him on an elevator.  George Zimmerman made the same kind of assumption, that Trayvon Martin was "up to no good" because he was black, wearing a hoodie, and walking around late at night.  

As Sherman Alexie wrote, above, blacks are not the only ones that white people make assumptions about.  Latinos, Native Americans and Asians routinely face this issue, as well.  It works the other way, too. Lots of folks of color assume that all whites are against them and act accordingly. 

“Assumptions are dangerous things to make," wrote Lemony Snicket (a.k.a Daniel Handler) in The Austere Academy, "and like all dangerous things to make -- bombs, for instance, or strawberry shortcake -- if you make even the tiniest mistake you can find yourself in terrible trouble. Making assumptions simply means believing things are a certain way with little or no evidence that shows you are correct, and you can see at once how this can lead to terrible trouble."

People make assumptions all the time.  Some of them stand us in good stead, while others, perhaps most others, land us in big trouble.  In schools we teach kids to make inferences, which are a kind of assumption, except that an inference is made about something on the basis of another fact that is true, or seems true, while an assumption is made without consulting the facts at all.  

For example, we see dark clouds and assume that it's probably going to rain, so we haul out our umbrella.  Whether or not it rains, we have taken steps to keep ourselves dry, if necessary.  That's a good call.

We hear a scratching noise at the door and infer that the cat wants to be let in.  We are working from the facts that 1) we have a cat, 2) the cat is outside now, and 3) the cat has made this sound before when it wanted to come in. 

We hear a door slam and assume that someone has just come home.  Depending on the time of day, that may be entirely correct, but it might also be true that someone has just left the house.  There's no way to know for sure by the sound of the door slamming, so we have to confirm our guess by calling out, "Who's there?" or calling the name of the person we think it might be. 

A friend is late meeting us for lunch, and we may assume that he or she is being inconsiderate.  It may be that the person was unavoidably tied up in traffic.  Unless we wish to make an issue of it, we may not get an explanation, so we really have no way of knowing for sure.  An inference like this could endanger the friendship if we let it fester. 

We meet a tall young man and assume that he plays basketball at the local high school.  But what if he doesn't?  We have no way of knowing.  Maybe he tried out and didn't make the team.  Maybe he doesn't care for sports at all.   We offer a conversational gambit about basketball, and depending on his reply, we will know whether we were right or not.

An Asian applies for a job that requires mathematical skill, and we assume that he's good at math, simply because he's Asian.  It may be true that a lot of Asian students are good at math, but not all of them are, so this is a dangerous inference that has just crossed the hazy line between an inference and an assumption.   If we hire the guy without checking out his credentials, we could be in for a surprise.

Our daughter brings home a young man for us to meet, and we learn that he is from a well-to-do family and has just graduated from an Ivy League school.  He is handsome and clean-cut, and we infer that he will be a good husband for our daughter.   Five years down the road, we are shocked to find that the young man is an alcoholic, can't hold a job, and is abusive to his wife, our daughter. 

There are a lot of racial and ethnic stereotypes here in the United States.

White people don't have rhythm.  All white people are racist.

African Americans are good at basketball.  They would rather be on the dole than get a job.  A young black man walking around at night wearing a hoodie is probably a drug dealer or a thief.

All Asians are geniuses and all of them know kung fu.

Hispanics are lazy and don't speak English well.  Most of them are illegal aliens who are running drugs.

Native Americans are lazy drunks who love to gamble.

Middle Easterners hate America.  All Middle Easterners are Muslim.  Muslims are terrorists.

Racial and ethnic stereotypes are big players in issues of immigration reform, gun control, and fighting crime and terrorism.  One of the problems with assumptions is that the people making them don't even realize that they are making them.  Nor do they realize that there are no facts to back up their assumptions.

Assumptions have played a huge part in our history as a nation.  European settlers in the New World assumed that the Natives were godless savages whose land could be taken because it wasn't being used for cultivation.  

Founding Fathers assumed that all or nearly all citizens of this country would be Christian, and tried to base the new government on Christian principles.  They failed to imagine that the population of the United States would grow to current levels, and that the system of representation they devised for the House of Representatives would one day cease to represent citizens accurately or fairly.

Men assumed that women were not educated enough or rational enough to vote, so they were not given the voting franchise until 144 years after the United States was formed.

Americans assumed that if alcohol were made illegal, the crime rate would go down.  Instead, it went up. 

Americans assumed that Japanese-Americans would side with Japan in World War II, so we put all of them in concentration camps, so they could be watched.

Educators have assumed that children of color and children in so-called broken homes are incapable of learning, and it has often been because of the educators' attitudes, rather than because of the children's native IQ that they have not succeeded in school. 

After September 11, 2001,  airlines began to profile people of Middle Eastern descent, or people who looked vaguely Middle Eastern.  Airport security was increased to ridiculous levels, inconveniencing all passengers.  Muslims became synonymous with terrorists in the minds of many.  

Christians, a majority in this country, have long assumed that non-Christians, agnostics and atheists are A-OK with having Christian prayers in schools and at public functions, displaying Christian symbols on public property, and celebrating Christian holidays ad nauseam.  When people finally began to speak up and say, no, they didn't actually like this stuff crammed down their throats, Christians assumed that there was some kind of "war on Christianity."  Meanwhile, true religious freedom remains an illusive dream.

Some people assume that the vast majority of Hispanics in this country are undocumented immigrants, so the police in border states tend profile citizens and make more traffic stops for persons of color.  There is a huge fight coming up in the United States Congress regarding immigration reform, and assumptions about Hispanics, in particular, are a huge part of this.

How can we avoid making assumptions?  We can recognize when our imagination starts to run wild and make a conscious effort to stop imagining negative consequences. We can check the facts, and double check.  We can check out sources of news that we are not familiar with, ones that don't  ordinarily agree with our political opinions.  We can listen carefully to our internal mental chatter and realize how much of what we think is pure speculation.  We can remind ourselves that people do grow and change, and we can allow for this.   None of us is completely innocent – we have all made assumptions at some time in our lives.  The good news is that the more aware among us are starting to realize when we're making assumptions and making a conscious effort to stop the practice.  :-/

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