Blog Post 2: On the Topic of Generalizations

As I have read through readings and blog posts for this class, other classes, perused news articles and listened to conversations and debates recently, one thing has stood out to me. Everyone, whether by choice or involuntarily, is placed into groups by people from all sides. These groups are based on a vast number of different things, including, but definitely not limited to, religion, race, gender, social status, region, ideals, etc. This holds true in the reading “From Safe Spaces to Brave Spaces: A New Way to Frame Dialogue Around Diversity and Social Justice” by Brian Arao and Kristi Clemens. While I have a few other problems with some of the ideas presented in this paper, I believe that a much broader and pervasive problem, and one that must be dealt with first, is the widespread tendency for people to make generalizations about groups of people. This is a huge topic, and one blog post inherently will not be able to provide the depth necessary to thoroughly discuss it. However, I believe this topic is extremely relevant to the times; therefore, I want to just express one or two main points that I believe need to be discussed.

As I said, there are all kinds of groups. Much of the time people choose to identify with these groups because they are proud of the group, agree with what it stands for, are born into it, etc. For example, I was born in Appalachia, am proud to be from there and am proud to be considered “Appalachian”. People identify with groups because they share some of the same opinions, ideals, it creates a sense of community, and/or they feel part of something. Unless the group as a whole stands for or is founded on something bad, there is nothing wrong with this; it is human nature. Some of the main problems we face arise when:

  1. Generalizations are made about groups.
  2. People are forced into groups for the purpose of making generalizations about that group.

Generalizations

Every person within a group has a unique identity and are different in many ways from others within that group. The fact that I identify as Appalachian does not make me the exact same as every other Appalachian person there is. We may vary wildly on almost every topic out there. Our single connection may be just that we are from the same region. So our Appalachian identity means one thing only: that we are from Appalachia. However, there are many common generalizations that people like to apply to people from Appalachia such as political views, education, religion, status, and so on. There is also a saying “there are a few bad apples in every bunch.” Groups as a whole should not be held accountable for the actions of a few, because, as I said, many members of the group may have nothing else in common with others in the group except that one characteristic. Generalizations such as these are made with all groups, and these generalizations are often harmful to people within those groups, because everyone within the group is different. There is no possible way someone can accurately claim to know my political views, religion, social status, level of education, etc. just from knowing that I am from Appalachia.

Forcing People Into Groups for the Purpose of Making Generalizations

When people are forced into groups, especially broad groups, it adds to the original problems. By labeling someone as a group, you are making a generalization about them based off of your perception. You may have no idea who that person actually is, but by making that one generalization about them, you are then able to apply a wide variety of other generalizations to them, regardless of whether or not any of them are true. This is a problem because the identifying characteristic that you picked out may not be true, may not be important to the individual, or may even be something the individual tries to distance themselves from because they are aware of the negative generalizations associated with that characteristic. In this case, you have not even given the person the chance to establish their identity; you have established it for them. Then you have continued to stack other generalizations onto this false foundation.

While all of this may seem very basic, it still happens all the time, and in all different types of settings. Using the reading mentioned above as an example, the authors mention numerous groups of people, including white, people of color, men, women, gender normative, transgender, target and agent groups, dominant groups, etc. They also imply basically two levels of privilege based off of those broad groups, which would be privileged vs. not. However, as I said, people within each group are vastly different. While some believe certain groups carry certain types and levels of privilege, that is still only one aspect of who they are, and there is no quantitative value assigned to that “privilege.” For example, some may assume that since I am white, I have “privilege” associated with that. However, I was raised on a small farm in Appalachia. I have had to work hard since I was old enough to walk for everything that I got, and my family has always had to do the same. I would not consider myself to be “privileged” when compared with a white person raised in a 10 million dollar mansion. However, because I am white, I am generalized as having the same “privilege” as them. I am not saying that I have no level of privilege. I understand that there are many people less fortunate than me. What I am saying is that there are all kinds and levels of “privilege”, and I would argue that everyone has a certain amount of privilege, no matter what group they identify with or are classified as by others.

This is just one example of how generalizations against any group of people are wrong. Speaking personally about my example, it is very disheartening for me, someone who was raised on a small farm in Appalachia, worked for everything I ever got, wasn’t even going to go to college, then worked through college to eventually be here earning my PhD, to be told that I am where I am today because of my privilege. They have summed up everything about me and everything I have worked hard for into one generalization. As I said, these types of generalizations are made about all groups of people. I don’t know exactly why, it seems that it is just something humans tend to do. However, the solution doesn’t involve making more generalizations about, as the article puts it, the “agent” or “dominant” groups. I believe that until we stop making generalizations of all kinds about groups of people and start focusing on people as individuals, we will never overcome the problems we are facing today, both in our society as well as our classrooms.

Austin Garren

5 Replies to “Blog Post 2: On the Topic of Generalizations”

  1. Thank you Austin for sharing this blog and your personal experience with us. I enjoyed reading your blog and I related to every point you have raised.
    I recall the first class I had back in my masters at the University of Arizona, and how it took me a while to remove all stereotypes and generalization out of my classmates so that they can feel comfortable around me. as you said not all groups are the same. not every single individual is similar to the other, we are differentiated by our experiences and our own beliefs. such a saying, makes it really hard to be inclusive of we didn’t fix this problem in the beginning. we have to be aware that we are certainly biasses to certain things, but we need not be generalized and accept all despite their reference.

  2. This was an interesting point and I think that it goes straight to the most contentious controversies in diversity and inclusion programming. Many people from majority/dominant identities, such as white people, may feel uncomfortable being associated with that group because it is associated with oppressiveness and other negative qualities that are perceived to be stereotypes. Some people from minoritized identity groups may also want to be seen as individuals, rather than to be associated with an oppressed group membership. Others may feel that a “color-blind” attitude that tries to ignore these pertinent characteristics that do shape how people are treated in society (since racism still exists) is not enough to truly understand experiences that are different from our own. People of all identities have, in my understanding, variable views about this. As a woman, I want people to take me seriously as a researcher, period, and not to place me in some exotic “female researcher” category. However, sexism has shaped my experience in academia, just as my other identities have also shaped the way that others have interacted with me. White people often benefit from privileges they don’t see, while still facing serious struggles to succeed in a cutthroat professional world. Many of us don’t fit neatly into “privileged” or “marginalized” categories, but land at a complex intersection of these identities.

  3. Hi Austin,

    Thanks for sharing your perspective about generalization in privilege. I understand your frustration when it comes to being ‘lumped in’ with other white people. However, the idea of white privilege reflects the system in that it does not make your life harder because you are white. This does not mean that you haven’t faced challenges and worked tirelessly for years. The intersectionality of our identities is not always written on our skin, it takes time and effort to learn about people and who they are/what they’ve experienced. We should all give people the benefit of the doubt, but those who are less privileged are often wary of those who exist without harm in the system.

    Best,
    Jazmin

    1. Jazmin,

      As I said in my post, I understand there is some amount of “privilege” that comes with being white. However, much of what you said exemplifies my point made in the post. You speak of “the system” as something that is completely and solely contingent on a person’s race. This is again generalizing everyone based off of one characteristic, which is their race. You say “those who are less privileged are often wary of those who exist without harm in the system”. So by saying this, it is assumed that “people who exist without harm from the system”, which in this case is white people, no matter what they face, are more privileged than all non-white people. I grew up in Appalachia and I knew many white people in horrible situations. Am I really expected to believe that a white person raised by someone in a meth lab in Appalachia is more “privileged” than a wealthy black person raised by two caring parents in a suburb somewhere, just because they are white? I doubt anyone would argue that. However, by making these broad generalizations, this is what is assumed. In reality there are numerous disparities included in “the system”, such as wealth or social status, gender, family structure, etc. Race is just one of those things. When “the system” is based solely off of race or any other is single characteristic, a vast number of people’s problems and hardships are discounted and ignored.

      Austin Garren

      1. Hi Austin,

        When I said those who are less privileged are often wary of those who exist without harm in the system, that means more than just race, like you point out. The system, the society we live in, makes life difficult for all of those groups you mentioned: those who are poor, those who don’t exist within a ‘normal’ family structure, those who live in rural areas, those who are not white. Privilege is not a scale that we measure people by.

        As Dr. Murzi said in the blog discussion video, we will never truly understand the lived experiences that other people have because we are not them. But the system, as a whole, needs to change so that factors such as race, gender, socioeconomic status, sexuality, and more do not impact one’s ability to live a happy, safe, healthy life.

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