But wait! Judging people by their appearance is profiling! Yes, it is. And we make snap judgments all the time. Some are reasonable and off the mark. Some are unreasonable and off the mark. Some are spot-on accurate. In any case, it’s only a problem when law-enforcement officers stop people without cause. Or when we allow any initial fear from prejudgments to override subsequent evidence to the contrary.
Take this instance that failed the sniff test when I was a newspaper reporter in Fort Myers, Fla. It was pouring that morning when I arrived at work and turned in to the employee parking lot, where I found a line of several cars ahead of me. A white gentleman with an umbrella was standing at the gate, swiping a security card to allow each car to enter.
I didn’t recognize him or know what was happening, but was thankful that I wouldn’t have to lower my window and get drenched. I arrived at the gate, smiled and expected to be swiped in like the others before me. Instead, he stood there and stared.
“You work here?”
“Yes, I work here.”
He didn’t move.
“Do you have an ID card?”
“Yes, I have an ID card.”
I didn’t move.
“Can I see it?”
I reached in my pocket with a sigh and lowered the window, preparing to let myself in.
“No, no, that’s OK; you don’t have to get wet,” he said, swiping his card. “I’ll let you in.”
An editor who was swiped in after me asked about the holdup as we walked from the parking lot. I told him the guy had questions.
“Really? He didn’t ask me anything at all,” said the editor, who was white. “He hardly even looked at me.”
Mind you, I was wearing a shirt and tie, at 10 a.m., trying to enter an employee parking lot. And this guy didn’t even work at the newspaper. Like the two dozen or so folks he was outside to swipe in, he was there for a community organization’s meeting.
If I made him nervous, he’s got a problem. But even if I had rolled up with profanity-laced rap blaring from my speakers, and thick clouds of weed wafting through my windows, and I was all tatted up with a mouth full of gold, wearing a do-rag and dark sunglasses — he still should have let me in.
Remember, stereotypical impulses are a fact of life. The goal is not giving in and letting them rule us. They should never lead us to operate in fear. Otherwise, we all lose.
Deron Snyder, an award-winning journalist who covers sports, politics and pop culture, is a regular contributor to The Root. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.