Was the clerk prejudiced? You bet. But like it or not, the way we present ourselves to the world affects the way we are treated. Thus it has always been. I’m betting that few women today clutch their purses tighter when a well-groomed man, black or white, enters the elevator. A punk wearing his britches around his rump and telegraphing attitude? Even Jesse Jackson — or Eminem — might feel a tingle of discomfort.
Nothing is fair about profiling, but one’s treatment by a stranger is not always necessarily linked to one’s racial or ethnic history. Sometimes it’s just . . . you.
And sometimes it’s just…sanity. And survival.
Humans have survived and thrived to become the most deadly predators in the jungle by being ready to fight or flee on an instant’s consideration. Our defensive systems are, at bottom, almost entirely predicated on that fight or flight mechanism hardwired into our genetic code by millions of years of making correct decisions as to which strategy to employ in the face of danger.
Of course, for fight or flight to kick in at all, one must first be aware that danger is threatening. And the essense of making that decision is speed. A human who delayed making the decision a split-second too long often became dinner for something bigger, meaner, and hungrier.
And so our brains evolved as well to help us make those crucial life-or-death decisions as speedily as possible. We don’t make them based on long, rambling discussions with a possible predator as to whether said predator’s childhood was optimal, his fashion sense based on a harmless footing, or any number of other possible explanations for the fact that said predator appears to be a threat. And we base that judgement of appearance of threat on previous experience or general knowledge: Do young black men with low-hanging pants, gang tattoos, and incomprehensibly obscene and threatening language often commit crimes of personal assault? Why, yes, they do. Far more often than, say, 85 year old white grandmothers. So the first invokes fight or flight, while the sight of the second invokes neither.
And making that simple decision is nothing more than an innate, hard-wired ability hard won over tens of thousands of years by those who made it correctly and passed on their genes, rather than those who decided incorrectly, and were passed on through the sphincters of more individually dangerous predators.
You do it because you don’t have a choice, Kathleen, any more than you have a choice about breathing.