Picture this

1 Apr

A high school senior just got accepted to all 8 Ivy League colleges.

Now you probably filled in this person’s age, based on the information I gave you. (If this HS senior were 40, I’m guessing you’d be more surprised than if they were 17.)

Research indicates that as soon as we meet someone, whether in person, on the phone, on paper or via e-contact, we read whatever information we have available to identify them. The first three categories we tend to fill in: race, sex and age. Not necessarily in that order.

So let me ask you: what sex and race did you picture this student being?

And if you want to answer that you didn’t picture a person of any particular race or sex, I’ll ask you why you think it may be important to you that to believe that you didn’t. Because odds are, you did. Reflexively, before you even noticed that you did it. Not because you’re racist, sexist and ageist but because you’re human.

Now what if I tell you the student’s name is Kwasi Enin? Now whom do you picture? (Here’s a photo of Kwasi: http://www.newsday.com/long-island/suffolk/shirley-student-kwasi-enin-accepted-at-all-8-ivy-league-schools-1.7565720?firstfree=yes.)

The reason it’s important to notice our tendency to fill in identifiers as soon as we encounter another person is that on the heels of those identifications, our biases crowd in. And if we don’t notice those biases, they’re a lot more likely to drive our behaviors. Like, for instance, our public response to this kid’s good news (http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2014/04/01/kwasi-enin-ivy-league_n_5067211.html).

I do wonder how the comments would read if Kwasi were Asian? White? Jewish? A student at an elite private prep school? A girl? (At least one viewer goes there with “No white or Asian student…”) And I wonder if, while we’re pasting all our identifiers and biases onto Kwasi, we can remember that he’s also a person.

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