During a visit to a large library in Denver years ago, I happened across a section containing a comprehensive collection of books on gay and lesbian history and experiences in America. So out of interest in deepening my knowledge beyond the scant and mostly negative portrayals of gays in the media, I took a book off the shelf and stood browsing its contents.
But when I overheard what I believe were obvious giggles from two passersby, I glanced over my shoulder at them and, beyond them, the rest of the crowded library when it dawned on me that I was the only person in the “gay section,” a fact that may explain why I was there alone.“Hum, I wonder if those seeing me in the gay section concluded that I’m gay,” I thought.
Now although I’m heterosexual, I would not be ashamed if I was gay if that’s the way the good Lord created me. (Sorry folks but I’m not going to engage in the “dog chasing its tail” gay by choice or by birth debate). However, that avowal was immediately put to test when, worriedabout the association, I retreated with the book to another part of the library not wanting to be “seen” as gay.
Though I didn’t realize it then but see it now, that retreat from the gay section was a pivotal onefor me in deepening my understanding of what it means to be gay, lesbian or bi-sexual and the struggle to not being found out as such.
Which brings me to a visual thought exercise, a segue into the “guilt by association” issue I’ll get to further down.
There’s a book, “How to Be Less Stupid About Race,” I purposefully selected for this article. Now if you walked past me and saw it prominently on a table next to me, say in a coffee shop, I want you to respond to the questions below based on your racial background (black, white, Latino, Asian etc.), age and region of upbringing (North, South, East, West, outside the United States, etc.). Assume that you know me, thought you knew me or don’t know me as an AfricanAmerican. 1. What thoughts would likely run through your mind seeing me with that book?2. What assumptions, if any, would you then make about me? 3. How likely would you ask me about that book?4. What assumptions would you make about me had that book cover read “Make America Great Again,” or perhaps “Black Lives Matter”?
Now switching gears – no, books rather – assume that the last book you saw me reading in that place was the Bible. 1. How might your impressions about me change now after seeing the “How to Be Less Stupid About Race” book next to me this time? 2. How might your impressions of me change if the book on the now was the Koran?3. What might you think about me if you caught me suddenly hiding what I was just reading when you approached?
Guilt by Association
“Guilt by association” is a situation in which the perception of a person is colored by the company he/she keeps – or my case, the book he’s “caught” reading. The results are hastygeneralizations that appeal to emotions (fear, distrust, bias, etc.) on the part of the observer.
On the part of the person being observed, the result is that he/she may attempt to avoid the generalization, the stereotype threat, by hiding (or retreating to another section of the library!)
The danger is that without seeking to understand, observers may begin to distrust and distance themselves from the person they’ve observed and miss opportunities to become better informed. At the same time the person being observed wastes time trying not to make others uncomfortable.
They say that “you can’t judge a book by its cover.” Well, sometimes we all do just that.
And by the way, the “controversial” book shown here is actually pretty darn good!
© Terry Howard is an award-winning writer and storyteller. He is a contributing writer with the Chattanooga News Chronicle, The American Diversity Report, The Atlanta Business Journal, The Echo World, Black Market.com, co-founder of the “26 Tiny Paint Brushes” writers’ guild, and recipient of the 2019 Dr. Martin Luther King Leadership Award. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org