An experiment, and a discussion question

Okay, I’m going to have a little experiment here for my readers. First, I’d like you all to read this paragraph:

I saw someone today while I was out shopping. This person was tall, with brown hair, and was carrying a sack. I really liked the red shirt the person was wearing.

Okay, now that you’ve read the paragraph, the experiment is to think about the person the narrator saw. Try to imagine the person. Get a good picture of the person in your head.

Now, apply the following statements to the person you’ve imagined:

This person is overweight.
This person is black.
This person is female.

Did any of those statements surprise you?

One of the annoying things about language is that implied meanings can work against openmindedness.

Don’t get me wrong–I think implicature is great, and loads of fun. But sometimes when we say things, there are underlying assumptions that are unfair, and often accepted unconsciously as normal.

For example, when I say “a man flirted with me,” and give no further information, what do you imagine? I have realized that I automatically imagine a white person.

It happens that I have been flirted with by two black men in recent months. The first time was in December, and the second time was today.

The first guy in that story from December–the one who just rode by after exchanging normal pleasantries–was white, and the second guy–the one who hit on me–was black. I realized as I was framing the story that if I stated that, I would be inadvertently making some sort of statement. So I chose not to state their races at all.

This morning’s story is much the same. What is the point of saying that the older gentleman–with a winning smile, twinkling eyes, and a salt-and-pepper patchy beard–happened to have dark skin?

Bringing it up now seems to imply something about me and black men, too, which is unfair.

But it bothers me that these men lose their identities if I don’t identify them as being black. How many of my readers share my unconscious prejudice? How many will see “a man” and think “a white man” without realizing it?

There seems to be no ideal solution to this. It occurred to me that rather than omitting race information completely, I could simply add it for everyone. However, I can’t just go along and say stuff like “my white friend, Brooke” and “my Puerto Rican friend, Mari”, because that is just inherently racist-sounding. It’s like I’m labeling everyone so that the readers will know which set of preconceptions to use when thinking about the people I write about. :P A better way might simply be to describe people physically–for example, the man this morning would become “an older gentleman, his smile a flash of white and gold in a dark, lined face”. That’s harder to do, and it still doesn’t completely escape the race labeling, but it might be the best option.

What does everyone else think? Is race information part of a person’s identity? Think back to the experiment at the beginning of this post. Do most people have a “base template” for “a person”, which is then modified by extra information? Do you have one? My base template, I’m coming to realize, is a white male at a healthy weight, with a full head of hair. What’s yours?

I realize that this is a touchy subject, so it might be embarrassing to share your preconceptions. Please don’t feel obligated to respond at all. But I really am interested in hearing some other opinions on this.

While I cry my eyes out over not having everything perfect in my comfortable lifestyle…

Luke has a good piece up called “Genocide in the Age of Information“. It’s ostensibly a review of the movie Hotel Rwanda, but given the subject matter of that film, even a review has the potential to be very powerful. Luke doesn’t back away from that potential.

Heh, now my problems seem so petty.

I don’t know if perspective is what I needed or not, but I do feel a little calmer. And sadder.