Tonight I was walking to the grocery store when I noticed a young woman crossing the street toward me. There was a large amount of snowfall on Monday, so the sidewalks were bordered by snow banks. Anticipating that she was going to hop over a snow bank, I instinctively held out my hand to help her.

Not realizing the current setting, I was surprised when she turned away from me in fear in an attempt to protect herself. It only took a spit second for me to realize that at night, the extended black-gloved hand of a 6-foot tall black male dressed in dark clothing at night time alone on a dark street looks surprisingly like a handgun. At this point all I could do was apologize for the confusion and continue my walk to the grocer. I hope she didn’t fall in the snow.

Continuing with our theme of walking at night…I was walking back from Harvard Business School a couple of weeks ago. It was a long, cold walk so I was listening to my iPhone and had a hood over my head. All of a sudden I see a shadow quickly approaching from behind. I couldn’t hear anything, but I was spooked by the shadow, so I quickly turned around and I startled a young white woman out for a jog. I point out that she was white because of the irony of the situation. Usually, as in the case earlier tonight it’s the young white girl walking alone who is fearful of me. It was quite funny for the roles to be reversed!

Leaving the theme of walking at night, but remaining on stereotypes, check out the videos below. Be warned, there is a small bit of foul language.

I have never given much thought to racial stereotypes; however, tonight’s experience and writing this blog have prompted me to reflect on prior experiences as the subject and perpetrator of stereotypes. Subject-wise I must admit that I am usually in my own world when I am out walking on the streets (which may explain how I was hit by that car) and I don’t take much note of people’s actions other than casual glances. Also, given the fact that people here in Boston are so rude at times, it’s hard to tell when someone is acting on a stereotype.

I have certainly joked about stereotypes; and, although I cannot recall any specific instances, I am sure that I have at some point consciously or subconsciously seen or acted towards someone in the lens of a stereotype. One of the benefits of my international travels that I am just realizing is my acceptance of people from different cultures and understanding their behaviors. For example, in China if someone bumps into or brushes against you, it’s perfectly acceptable for that person to continue as if no incident occurred. Why? Because in a country with over a billion people, you’re bound to get bumped into or have your shoes stepped on! So when a Chinese person bumps into me without saying, “Excuse me,” I understand that the person simply has not adapted to our culture.

Having experienced so many different cultures I find myself more willing to wait to meet someone before I judge him/her rather than rely on stereotypes. Digging deeper, this reliance on stereotypes could be seen as a form of Social Proof–using the examples of others to derive the appropriate behavior for a situation. I first learned of this idea from Robert Cialdini’s Influence, which I had to read for Managerial Psychology (15.301). One of Cialdini’s major points is that people look for shortcuts in social situations. These shortcuts can come in the form of buying a higher-priced item over another because one equates high cost with high quality, joining a cult in order to maintain a show of consistency, or simply returning a favor so as not to appear ungrateful.

Stereotypes, racial or otherwise, are a shortcut. While some can be good, many racial stereotypes hurt. I believe the world might be a better place if we rid ourselves of the negative preconceived notions and, to quote Dr. Martin Luther King, judged people not by the color of their skin, but by the content of their character.

Feel free to do some research of your own:

Feel free to offer your thoughts in the comments below.