Judging by Appearances

"Do not judge according to appearance, but judge with righteous judgment.” ~ John 7:24

As the son of an Air Force veteran who traveled the world, I was shaped by my environment, growing up in a heterogeneous community at a time when such a thing was a novel concept for most Americans. I had a deep love of books, which meant you were more likely to find me in the library during recess than on the playground, and English was one of my favorite subjects throughout my school years.  As a result, I have no discernible accent and precise diction when I speak. Nothing unusual about that, right?

Well, my speaking style has garnered some interesting responses from others. To my relatives and friends in Lake Charles, Louisiana where I was born, I was a novelty and their responses to how I spoke vacillated between pride and puzzlement. To people who didn’t know me, I was “articulate” and, at the time, I accepted that as a compliment.

You see, as a person of color, I’m not expected to speak what linguists call “Standard American English.” That’s “talking white.” Instead, I’m supposed to be speaking “African American Vernacular English (AAVE),” “Black English,” “Black Vernacular,” “Black English Vernacular (BEV),” or “Black Vernacular English (BVE),” depending on which linguistic term you prefer. The popular term is “Ebonics,” derived from “ebony + phonetics.”

There’s a particularly funny scene in the comedy film “Airplane” where an elderly female passenger, played by actress Barbara Billingsly, offers to assist a stewardess who is struggling to understand two black passengers, declaring to her, “I speak jive.” She then proceeds to “speak jive” to the black passengers and “translates” their statements into standard English for the benefit of the stewardess.

The humor comes from the fact that Ms. Billingsley, best known to the public as June Cleaver from the iconic “Leave it to Beaver” television series, is the embodiment of the white American housewife, and no one expects her to speak “black English”. The irony of this scene, however, is that it simultaneously defies and reinforces stereotypes, even if that wasn’t the writer’s intent.

My life is a study in defying stereotypes. Blacks are supposed to be ideologically liberal; I’ve been a conservative for most of my adult life. Blacks are supposed to prefer rhythm and blues, hip hop, jazz, rap and other forms of “black” music; I like classical, New Age, adult contemporary and contemporary Christian music. Blacks are supposed to have a fluid physicality that makes them natural athletes and dancers; I was an above-average football player but a terrible baseball and basketball player, and I can’t dance. I suppose I’m somewhat redeemed by the fact that I love fried chicken and watermelon!

If you chuckled or cringed at that last statement, then you know the stereotype, and there are stereotypes of all races, genders, ethnicities, faiths and practically any other demographic category you could name.

So what is a stereotype and why do we employ stereotypes to characterize one another?

The word “stereotype” is defined, in part, as “a simplified and standardized conception or image invested with special meaning and held in common by members of a group.” While the word has existed since the late 1700s, it was used at that time to describe a printing plate used by a typographer, and it wasn’t until 1922 when philosopher and political commentator Walter Lippman, in his book Public Opinion, addressed the topic of stereotypes and their impact on human interaction that the word acquired its more commonly known definition.

He described how we categorize people before knowing them, stating that "For the most part we do not first see, and then define, we define first and then see."

Stereotyping, in his analysis, is common in human nature because it simplifies an increasingly busy and complex world in which personal interaction is increasingly rare, and the time to evaluate all the information about a person or issue is limited:

But modern life is hurried and multifarious, above all physical distance separates men who are often in vital contact with each other, such as employer and employee, official and voter. There is neither time nor opportunity for intimate acquaintance. Instead we notice a trait which marks a well-known type, and fill in the rest of the picture by means of the stereotypes we carry about in our heads.

The danger in this, however, is that it compromises our ability to think critically and interact socially, and we run the risk of reducing the world to a collection of generalities which give us comfort, but also keep us from coming together in any substantive way:

[O]ur love of the absolute shows itself. For we do not like qualifying adverbs. They clutter up sentences, and interfere with irresistible feeling. We prefer most to more, least to less, we dislike the words rather, perhaps, if, or, but, toward, not quite, almost, temporarily, partly. Yet nearly every opinion about public affairs needs to be deflated by some word of this sort...Real space, real time, real numbers, real connections, real weights are lost. The perspective and the background and the dimensions of action are clipped and frozen in the stereotype.

Lippmann wrote these words in 1922, but they are no less true today. Stereotypes are, in some respects, a defense mechanism for our brains in that they relieve us of the burden of learning enough about people as individuals to know how to engage them. There’s just too many people, too much to do, and too little time, and we fall back on stereotyping so there’s one less hard thing for us to do in our already hard lives.

I confess that I stereotype. We all do it, and those who say they don’t aren’t being honest. For example, I give a raised eyebrow to young black men with their pants hanging at mid-rear, or to young whites with excessive tattoos.

Ultimately, I don’t act on my thoughts, and I recognize them for what they are – a shortcut that allows me to neatly categorize my world without further thought. I govern myself to respond appropriately, and to change my assessment when presented with evidence to the contrary. It’s prudent to judge, but be humble enough to be open to change when presented with new information.

Ultimately, stereotypes are broken not by the passage of laws or the galvanization of social movements, but by individual acts of grace and humility toward one another. We start from the basic truth that we are all made in the image of God, “fearfully and wonderfully made”, and each one of us is of inestimable value.

Once we have established our equality under God, we examine ourselves and acknowledge the stereotypes we carry with us, and we capture those thoughts to the obedience of Christ.

Only then can we begin to engage each other with the grace that makes us slow to take offense, and the humility that gives priority to the other over oneself. It is when we are other-centered that stereotypes are discarded and relationships begin.

“Do nothing out of selfish ambition or vain conceit. Rather, in humility value others above yourselves, not looking to your own interests but each of you to the interests of the others” (Philippians 2:3-4).

Ron Miller of Lynchburg, Virginia is an associate dean and assistant professor of government at Liberty University, a commentator and author of the book, SELLOUT: Musings from Uncle Tom's Porch. He serves the No Walls Ministry as a member of the board of directors and the director of No Walls University.

“There is neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free, nor is there male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.” ~ Galatians 3:28