Profiling: We all do it. Constantly. And it ain’t always racist. The practice has gotten a bum rap lately without deserving it.
Let’s be careful about the meaning we load into it. There’s profiling and there’s racism. They aren’t the same. Not even close.
Law enforcement profiles when it tries to match the known identifying characteristics of a crime suspect with subjects observed in the field. Nothing wrong with that. Profiling is also the practice of matching a personality type with a crime with the intent of narrowing a suspect population on the basis of linking a type of person with a type of crime. “Big data” now permits law enforcement to get a pretty good handle on what type of person commits what kind of crime.
Profiling helps us ordinary folks get through life mostly unscathed by sizing up people and situations; in exercising caution we “profile” everything for signs of imminent threat and danger. We carry within our brains an ever-growing, evolving album of experiences, some good, some not so good, some horrifying. We work our way through life on the basis of expectations, and we get these expectations from past experiences (our memory albums). We mentally paste memories into these albums and navigate life on the basis of them. Nothing wrong with that so far. In fact if it weren’t that way we’d make the same mistakes over and over again, never learning a thing.
So where do problems like racism begin? Let’s define racism: the tendency to unthinkingly carry animus wholesale toward all members of a group of which one is not a member. This automatic animus arises from unfounded and carelessly applied negative generalizations (stereotypes) bundled into consciously or unconsciously held biases and prejudices we mistakenly believe are rooted in reality rather than solely and wholly in our brains. We carry a negative model in our brain of that class into which we wrongly cram every member of that class. That’s a bad thing, and that’s where the worm turns.
To do its job, our brains are made to scan, classify, and condense everything we experience into mental files, and when we first experience something different from the usual our brains automatically focus on the most obvious aspect of what’s unusual. Could be anything at all, but in classifying people it’s commonly on the basis of appearance: skin color or some other physical characteristic. Nothing wrong here as well.
As we collect more and broader experience we make more fine and refined distinctions among the classes of things we experience and think, and make judgments about. And hopefully we stop cramming things into classes into which they no longer fit. That is to say, we generalize less and less the more mental files we have to fit things into. At least we hope we do. The more people of various classes we meet the more we realize that for the most part everyone’s more or less like everyone else. As Shakespeare’s Shylock famously lamented: “I am a Jew, hath not a Jew eyes? Hath not a Jew hands? … If you prick us do we not bleed? If you tickle us do we not laugh? If you poison us do we not die?”
The sad thing is many of us haven’t opened ourselves to broaden our experience and rethink the beliefs we overlay upon the world. Nor have we opened ourselves to reviewing and rethinking what’s in our mental files to weed out inaccuracies and negative prejudgments about this or that group.
And that’s where racism rears it ugly head: the tendency to cling to negative beliefs about certain classes of people in the face of clear evidence that our beliefs about them are wrong, or unfairly slanted, to demean and disparage them and act with disdain toward them.
Profiling (sizing things up) is an automatically occurring brain function we could not get along without; racism is a cultural cancer. One is a blessing, the other a curse. Let’s each of us exercise our critical thinking skills and keep one distinct from the other.
Brik McDill, Ph.D., of Tehachapi has spent 40 years in private practice in clinical and forensic psychology. Community Voices is an expanded commentary of 650 to 700 words.