Overcoming stereotyping of people — clients, opponents, witnesses, jurors, or folks on the street
I grew up in rural Alabama and Georgia in the 1950s and 1960s, and began my legal career under a DA who instructed us to always strike all blacks from juries. When I decided to prosecute a black-on-black rape case in 1978, just as I had a white-on-white rape case, some of the folks around me thought I was crazy to defy stereotypical thinking. That’s how things were in those days.
The more I deal with human beings of every possible racial, religious and ethnic background, the more convinced I am that stereotyping is fundamentally invalid. Victoria Pynchon on the Settle It Now Negotiation Blog that focuses on mediation and other alternative dispute resolution has a good post on point.
She starts by quoting a song that I sang every Sunday as a small child on the front row of a little country church. Even as a preschooler in rural Alabama in the 1950s, I found it puzzling, in light of the prevalent attitude of most adults in that time and place: "Red and yellow black and white they are precious in his sight Jesus loves the little children of the world."
She goes on to quote at length from a book by Ken Cloke, Conflict Revolution Mediating Evil, War, Injustice and Terrorism:
Prejudice is complex and operates on many levels. It can be found not only in insults and judgments, caricatures and stereotypes, but refusals to listen and communicate, stories of demonization and victimization, inability to experience empathy with others, and infinitesimal denials of humanity. It is reflected in personal selfishness and hostile relationships, bullying and aggressive behaviors, and ego compensations based on poor self-esteem. It is expressed through contempt, disregard, and domination, as well as through low status, inequitable pay, and autocratic power.
Prejudice commonly operates by stereotyping. People form stereotypes, in my experience, in eight easy steps:
1. Pick a characteristic
2. Blow it out of proportion
3. Collapse the person into the characteristic
4. Ignore individual differences and variations
5. Disregard subtleties and complexities
6. Overlook commonalities
7. Match it to your own worst fears
8. Make it cruel
If these steps routinely produce prejudice, it is possible to undo them, for example, by making people more complex than their stereotype permits, or distinguishing unique individuals within a group, or recognizing commonalities between people. It helps, in doing so, to acknowledge that everyone is equal, unique, and interesting; that everyone forms prejudices; that everyone can learn to overcome them through awareness, empathy, and communication; and that everyone can become more skillful in communicating across stereotypes and lines of separation created by fear.
Racial attitudes have advanced light years in my lifetime. While we have not reached "the promised land" in terms of eliminating prejudice, there is no comparison to the open, often vicious, legally sanctioned racism that was part of the world in which I grew up. I remember in 1967, when my high school was desegregated (eight years before Tiger Woods was born, and when Barack Obama was six years old), telling a friend that in a hundred years race would be irrelevant. We are 41 years into that century. I don’t know if my idealistic, adolescent prediction will hit the mark, but we have certainly come a long way.
What do you think?
The Shigley Law Firm represents plaintiffs in wrongful death and catastrophic injury cases statewide in Georgia, and in other states subject to the multijurisdictional practice and pro hac vice rules in each state. Ken Shigley was designated as a "SuperLawyer" in Atlanta Magazine and one of the "Legal Elite" in Georgia Trend Magazine. He is a Certified Civil Trial Advocate of the National Board of Trial Advocacy, former chair of the Southeastern Motor Carrier Liability Institute and Georgia Insurance Law Institute. He particularly focuses on cases arising from truck and bus accidents. His practice is based largely upon referrals from other attorneys.