Its beautiful to observe how at 6-years of age, my twin girls do not describe friends, teachers, neighbors, or strangers by race. This is rather typical:
"Dad, you know who I'm talking about, the guy with the nose that kind of bends around, with the puffy cheeks. Why are you looking at me like that, you know him, I've seen you talk to him."
"Why does that guy with the round head and bunched up legs walk his dog in the rain?"
"My best friend at school right now is Tamina. She wears glasses, her hair is long and crunchy, and she talks really fast."
These interactions require my full mental capacity because unfortunately, I have no idea who the hell they are talking about. In my career as a psychologist, race becomes a paramount descriptor. And while there are many reasons to do this, I want to suggest that this has gotten out of control, causing more harm than good.
A few years ago, I was at a conference where a researcher was giving a talk on race-related differences in how people respond to an anxiety questionnaire. If you have the pleasure of taking this questionnaire, you'll be asked to express agreement on a scale from 0 (very little) to 4 (very much) on items such as "When I get diarrhea, I worry that I might have something wrong with me". No, I didn't derive these items during a drunken stupor. This is from the 36-item Anxiety Sensitivity Index - Revised (ASI-R). Now what was interesting about this talk was that the lead scientist wanted to know whether black college students responded differently than Hispanic and white students.
The researcher found that contrary to expectations, college students of different races responded in the same way. My initial response which I raised in the meeting was, "why would you expect someone's race to alter how they respond to questions about anxiety? What theoretical reason would lead you to believe that a black 21-year old enrolled at a university thinks differently about what it means to be overly upset about anxiety than a hispanic 21-year old at the same university? It sounds as if you are interested in cultural beliefs, which may or may not have something to do with racial categories." Arbitrarily assuming that someone's race should define them, that they should be labled, boxed, and shipped in a different container than other human beings because of the pigmentation of their skin and assumed cultural belief system is akin to racism.
If you are interested in cultural beliefs, then focus on cultural beliefs, not a crude glimpse at the racial category they checked off. Its not that racism doesn't exist, it does and we need to be aware of this, collect information, understand it, and reduce the problem. Companies refuse to hire people because of their race. Real estate brokers refuse to sell houses or raise the price of these houses because of the buyer's race. But sometimes it just doesn't matter. As professionals, pseudo-quasi experts of human behavior, shouldn't psychologists and health professionals be at the forefront of appreciating when race doesn't matter?
When I was in graduate school back in 1998-2004, we had the American Psychological Association guidelines about how to treat ethnic minority populations. I vividly remember being told (and tested) about a couple of factoids:
Compared to white romantic couples, black couples tend to be more egalitarian.
Compared to white adults, Asian-American adults tend to view mental health as inseparable from physical health.
Compared to white adults, Hispanic adults strive for harmony with their physical and social surroundings and they have a strong sense of spirituality and deference for their elders.
My immediate reaction at the time (that hasn't changed) is that every group that we are interested in tends to be more heterogeneous than expected. Instead of leaning toward the idea that black couples will be more likely to be egalitarian, how about observing them? Adopt an open, receptive attitude to find out if there is a dominant person in the relationship, and exactly what situations this dominance emerges and why. That is, focus on function instead of superficial topography. And the same goes for viewing the mind and body as inseparable, the respect given to older adults, and the degree to which someone values spirituality and engages in spiritual practices. Instead of starting with someone's race and ethnicity, why not start by trying to understand the unique, complex value system of the person in front of you, and the cultural beliefs they hold?
Function and context trump superficial assumptions. Thankfully, there are a few sane voices asking for deep thought and a curious attitude instead of the incessant desire to transform the complex into simple, tidy little boxes.
For my local elementary school — stop separating the girls and boys into groups in gym class. Stop reinforcing the idea that sex and gender matter more than they do, especially when it comes to scooter races and kickball.
For my fellow allied health professionals — ask whether race, age, and sex matters before it becomes prominent in your view of another person.
Resist the attempt to make the uncertain certain. What makes us different from one another is much more sophisticated and complicated from what you can glean from staring.
Dr. Todd B. Kashdan is a public speaker, psychologist and professor of psychology at George Mason University. He authored Curious? Discover the Missing Ingredient to a Fulfilling Life and Designing Positive Psychology. His new book, Mindfulness, Acceptance, and Positive Psychology was published in April 2013. If you're interested in speaking engagements or workshops, see the contact information at toddkashdan.com.