I once worked with a man, let’s call him Andrew. As an employee, he was mostly pretty good, except with one major flaw. Andrew, in the entire time I knew him, did not come to work on time. He was perpetually late, as though his personal clock was set five minutes after those of the rest of us.
Weeks after he was hired, I remember another employee complaining about Andrew. As you might expect, it was a complaint about his punctuality, or more accurately, his lack of it. It was a reasonable complaint if it was about Andrew himself. Instead, the man said “those people” are always late. As though Andrew was part of a vast conspiracy among all the men who look like him to always show up to work five minutes after you expect.
I’m being vague about Andrew’s race largely because it’s interesting to think of what people imagined when they read that. What race do people picture Andrew to be based on that description? To me, at the time, it was interesting because Andrew was actually making up his own stereotypes, his personality suddenly informing views on an entire race of people. To think of all the other stereotypes he could have created, “those people” are very friendly in general, or “those people” sometimes dance when they’re in the middle of doing a menial task. Who are “those people?” Make your own guess.
I think of Andrew a lot when people talk about racism, specifically I think of how he was an ambassador for everyone who looked like him. It was quite ridiculous.
This isn’t always based around race, it could be based on other parts of your personal appearance. I was once told by a car dealer that “people like you usually buy trucks,” and I have spent the last five years trying to figure out exactly what that means. People with beards? People with large heads? People who like wearing plaid? It’s a mystery, especially for someone who has never actually owned a truck.
That it is a mystery to me does speak to an advantage I have. I’m usually not immediately classed by the way I look – in fact, my appearance doesn’t really give you any assumptions about me, apart from, apparently, a love of trucks. It makes one think about how people run into that every day and with every interaction. I was stereotyped once and it has bugged me for five years. What’s it like for people who have to encounter that every day of their life?
I don’t have an answer to that question, because it’s not an experience I’ve lived. But whenever I find someone putting forth a stereotype, I think of Andrew. I think about how an entire people was assumed to be perpetually late just because he was never on time.
It’s a simple assumption, but it’s one that could have affected impressions of whoever was next down the line, whether someone was hired or not based on whether they were assumed to show up to work on time, based entirely on one guy they didn’t even know.
People are judged based on factors beyond their control. The examples discussed here are mostly harmless, but when you get into more serious issues, those surrounding employment, justice and relationships, you realize how serious it can get.