The other day I entered a crowded coffee shop looking for a caffeine fix and a quiet corner to work in. While glancing around I made eye contact with two young men in baggy jeans and disheveled hair peaking out under their hats. I looked away, feeling slightly guarded. The duo then took their drinks and left. I found an empty table and seated myself, wondering why I had felt uneasy over the simple glance we shared.
Hours later as I furiously punched away at my keyboard, attempting to finish pharmacy school applications, articles, and essays, a nervous young man in a button up shirt walked up to me. Suddenly pulled away from my work, I was confused. Why was someone standing above me while I was trying to work? He mumbled a greeting and attempted to start a conversation.
I now reflect on these two interactions (or lack thereof). In the first, my judgment of the young men based on their appearances drove me to feel defensive and wary. In the second, I was annoyed at being physically disturbed from my work, but I didn’t feel emotionally uneasy. Judgment is a natural act that people use to determine the best way to approach people, but how much of this judgment is a natural defense mechanism and how much of it is an act of prejudice?
The shooting of Trayvon Martin received massive media coverage and brought racial profiling to the forefront of discussions of race in America. However the media continues to constantly exploit images of young men of color in order to invoke fear and support existing ideologies. Additionally, hegemonic ideals of masculinity associate greater manliness with greater predisposition for violence. Television shows and movies are flooded with images of men of color committing crimes and violent acts. Usually, these young men are made to dress in a similar fashion: baggy clothes, hats, maybe a do-rag. These images influence the way men of color are treated in America.
While one in three black men and one in six Latino men will be incarcerated during their lifetimes, only one in seventeen white men will face prison. Ideology dictates that we dismiss these differences and attribute them to the “self-inflicted” poverty people of color face; however the patterns of increased incarceration persist along class lines.
The influence of media on our perceptions of race, appearance, and gender are evident even in those who attempt to work past these deeply imbedded preconceptions.
I interviewed three young men of color who face the challenges of being judged based on their appearances rather than their characters. The insights they share can effect the way we all look at the world.
Meet Allen Khai. He is a 20-year-old Asian-American pre-medical student at UC Irvine with a passion for his community, “I volunteer in a variety of places like the hospital and Boys and Girls Club. I do whatever I can to help people.” Allen hopes to eventually open his own free clinic as a physician in his hometown of Tenderloin, California and he took a serious tone when he shared his influences and long term plans:
“That’s what Boys and Girls Club taught me to do when they took me in. They brought me to a lot of community service events and projects. In the future, I plan to give back to the community with a free clinic since health care is such a difficult aspect of life. It’s hard to access for low-income people.”
But Allen’s goals have been easily dismissed because of preconceptions based on his dress. Though Allen maintains a well-manicured GPA alongside a long list of outside commitments as he pursues his dreams of becoming a doctor, he said people quickly assume he is flippant or uncommitted.
“They think I’m dumb or that I’m mean.”
While Allen attempts to brush off people’s judgments he admits that he seeks to behave more professionally around unfamiliar faces to fend off unfair assumptions. The pressure faced by those who do not fit ideals of speech and appearance as they attempt to enter collegiate life is greatly inhibiting and saddening. The attitude that challenges non-normative behavior leaves little room for those without middle- or upper- class upbringings in higher education. As those who face poverty encounter financial and educational challenges in pursuing academic dreams, they also face cultural challenges. In fact, data collected by the U.S. Department of Education’s civil rights department indicated that students of color face harsher punishments than white students. These challenges can push people change themselves in order to meet “acceptable” standards. Like Allen, the other two men I interviewed also held themselves to improved standards because of the preconceptions they face.
Kulvir is an Indian-American student at UC Davis who says that as a young man wearing a turban he is representing not only himself, but his community. The turban, or dastaar, is a religious tradition for Sikh boys and men. Never having cut his hair, Kulvir confided that his uniqueness sometimes earned scrutiny from peers:
“I would say if a kid wears a turban or has long hair, elementary school is when he faces the most cruelty. When you’re younger, kids are definitely more immature and they’ll tease and things like that.”
This revelation is another reminder that people are socialized to recognize and reject differences from childhood. As adults, people are less likely to openly share prejudices but biases continue to fester, as is obvious by the ideologies that persist through generations, passed from the media and parents to children.
As an adult, people have not openly reacted negatively to Kulvir’s attire, but some do stare or ask ill-informed questions. Namely, “Are you Muslim?” a question coated in cultural ignorance. Kulvir displayed immense patience in discussing this mis-identification, stating that,
“If [people] have questions they should feel free to ask. I feel like a lot of people hesitate. They’ll look at you and you know have they something to ask or they’re curious, but they don’t want to ask because they don’t want to offend you. But I would tell people not to hesitate to ask. That’s the only way to stop ignorance and educate people who aren’t educated.”
Kulvir attempts to create a dialogue with his counterparts to breed more acceptance in the world. His tolerance towards those who lack knowledge allows for an open discussion and understanding.
Nduka, a Nigerian American student who grew up in Los Angeles, is currently pursuing a doctoral degree at Western University. Like Kulvir and Allen, Nduka is often misjudged because of his appearance; namely his physique and race. In the classroom, Nduka shared that his peers were often initially surprised by his contributions, while outside the classroom he has been pulled over by police officers while driving for no known reason. He attributes the media for much of the perceptions of black men and the treatment he faces,
“When you watch the news or a certain TV show they usually have black men committing a certain crime.”
While Nduka acknowledges that, because of historical neglect and systematic racism, black men are statistically more likely to face poverty leading to petty crimes of property and be persecuted of said crimes he also feels,
“It’s everyone’s responsibility to judge everyone uniquely and not as part of a group because you have diversity within the group. It seems like they try to chunk everyone together. Both ways. It’s not good to assume good in someone or bad in someone.”
I asked Nduka if the harsh preconceptions he faces affect the way he behaves. He confidently replied
“Yeah. I try not to let it, but it does.”
“When I was in high school, I got my first job. I was a host at a restaurant and a black woman came in and she pulled me aside and she told me ‘You know whatever you do in life you have to be the best.’ And I said ‘Why?’ And she said ‘Because everyone expects you to be the worst.’”
He added, “People have stereotypes about African American people: ‘Oh they’re loud. They’re unprofessional’ I hold myself to professional characteristics and behaviors when I’m out in public. Not just when I’m at work.” Nduka exemplifies the challenges people of color face in a society that has made assumptions based on race. He must hold himself to higher standards to earn the same respect and courtesy as a non-minority.
Allen, Kulvir, and Nduka are three of many men of color who face harsh judgment because of their appearances, while simultaneously debunking prejudicial ideologies. They can remind all of us to set aside preconceived notions and judge people based on character rather than color or attire. In closing our interview, I asked Nduka what he wished people knew about him before they met him. After a pause and mustering over the question he replied, “Nothing. I wish them to know nothing, assume nothing, and think nothing. I want them to judge me based on me.” Can’t we all aspire to hold judgment until we can assess a person’s character?
Special thanks to Shreya Sharma.