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