Of labels and classifications

“A young black man walks into a store…”

Why does he have to be black, or white or Asian or Hispanic or…? Why can’t he just be a young man who walks into a store? Why do we have to label people?

Why does he have to be young? How about “A man walks into a store…”

Even that sentence has classified our protagonist. Why does it have to be a man?

“A human walks into a store…” What? Now we’re prejudice against animals?

“A sentient being walks into a store…” Whoops, we’ve got still one more bias to eliminate — walking.

“A sentient being enters a store…” There. Now we’ve eliminated our biases. Well, most of them… Sentience? Is that a bias? Are we favoring beings that can think? Or move?

My point here is that biases, prejudices, labels and classifications are required — at some level. But where do we draw the line? At what point do our bias-agnostic intentions become absurd? Surely there are divisions that make sense. But what are they?

So far in this simple exercise we’ve reduced our biases to the absurd. But what if we expand them further? “A shirtless, mentally handicapped young black man with one arm, who hasn’t eaten for days, stumbles into a store…” As a story teller, perhaps this description fits our needs.

But as a reporter — explaining a robbery — perhaps such a sentence crosses into bigotry. Should a reporter call out the race, age, gender or disability of the accused? Under what context does information descend into prejudice? Should we try and refrain from attaching labels to people when we describe events and situations?

I personally would like to, and in fact, try to avoid race, religion or culture anytime I describe someone. To me a person is just a person. It’s hard mind you. And I slip, often. But to me it’s a worthy effort to change the way I label or classify people.

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