Friday, August 9, 2013

Note to the World: Profiling Goes Two Ways

AP reports:
Talk show host Oprah Winfrey says she encountered racism while shopping in Switzerland — and the national tourism office agrees.

The media mogul, who is one of the world's richest women, told the U.S. program "Entertainment Tonight" that a shop assistant in Zurich refused to show her a handbag because it was "too expensive" for her.
The clerk obviously made a big error here. But I don't think it was a case of racism as much a case of bad profiling. People make assumptions about people all the time, some people are good at it others are not. Blacks do this as well.

I was once invited to a party of a black Hollywood producer. This is a big time guy, who has a house mansion at the top of Beverly Hills. This was a big party. You had to park you car at the bottom of the hills and a bus took you up to the party. There were many people invited to the party, who it was clear didn't know the producer, but somehow had gotten invited. As it turned out, when I arrived I realized I was the only white guy there. It turned out to be a fun party. But the funniest thing was that at least a half-dozen times during the night a female would come up to me and tell me what a spectacular house I had---once while I was standing and talking to the producer who actually owned the house!

Like I said, people make assumptions based on how they understand the world. They are not, generally, trying to be vicious or mean. Their assumptions can just be wrong. But making assumptions in general is not a bad thing. The more important the specifics of a situation are, the more likely we are going to look into details and not make snap decisions about who people are. If someone was buying the mansion I was in, they would do much more than make a snap decision as to who owned the place. Indeed, they would probably do a title search.

Snap profiles are made, when it is not important to spend valuable time trying to determine exactness, or when we don't have the time before we need to take action. Again, some are good at this and some are not.

As it happens, I am good friends with a person who provides a service to Oprah. It turns out she does some profiling of her own. The way the story goes, she badly misunderstood who a certain black person was and started asking the person to do something that would have been awkward, to say the least. To her credit, she caught herself in the middle of her request, when she realized she had profiled the person inaccurately.

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