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The Danger of Categorizing People

The categorizing of people has gone on for decades. We brand people as “white males” and “black males” and “white females” and “black females” and “transgender” and “homosexual” and “bisexual” and “lesbian,” and “conservative” and “liberal” and “Republican” and “Democrat,” placing them each into a neat group that comes with associated traits.

Stereotypes prevail. Conservatives are “conservative bigots.” Liberals are “libtards.” White males are “white supremacists.” Asians are “soft,” Blacks are “victims of racism” and Hispanics are “illegal immigrants.” Democrats are misguided and Republicans are regressive.

The trouble with categorizing people is that when we do that we dehumanize them. People are no longer individuals, with unique backgrounds, upbringings, genes, quirks, traits and opinions. Instead, people are symbols: they are black or white or Irish Catholic or liberal or conservative or rich or poor. When we lump people in categories, that is a way of generalizing about them, and generalizing is another word for prejudice.

At a Manhattan college, a woman professor recently held a seminar called “Checking White Privilege: White Professors in a Diverse Classroom.” This professor has generalized about white people. All white people enjoy white privilege and therefore need to be taught how to relate to a “Diverse Classroom”—meaning they need to learn how to relate to black, Hispanic, Asian, gay, transgender and other students. With all due respect, I believe this is a misguided approach. I’m sure she believes she is doing something constructive, but in reality she is teaching professors to relate to students as categories, not people.

Whatever happened to the Martin Luther King’s concept of a “color-blind” society? Now, instead of being color-blind, we focus on race, gender, sexual orientation and other categories more than ever. Far from being color-blind, we are totally obsessed with colors. We call it diversity and have made it into a religion.

Where is the research to back up this trend of categorization, this attitude of looking at people as symbols instead of as people? Where is the research that shows how categorizing and generalizing about race and gender is good for humanity? Where is the research that indicates that dividing people into categories and comparing them to one another is beneficial? Where is the research showing that it is good to relate to people as though they are symbols rather than individuals? There is no research. There is the consensus of groups.

Instead of research, we have groups of people who have formed religious or political affiliations, and these groups have established a consensus. The consensus seems to be our research. It is our truth. We repeat our mantra of “diversity” over and over, proclaiming what is true and what is false, and we punish those who do not agree with us about it.

There are white professors who don’t introduce themselves to their classes as white professors. They present themselves as people. They have not enjoyed any privilege. Their backgrounds were not privileged backgrounds and their lives have not been lives of privilege. They refuse to be put into a category. Their background, history and genes are different than anybody else’s. White people are not alike. Some are privileged. Most aren’t. Some Blacks are privileged. Most aren’t. Some Asians are privileged. Most aren’t.

When these whites talk to their students they treat each student as a person. They don’t see a student as a black or Asian or gay. They don’t look out at their classrooms and see categories. They see individual people. They see them as students. They see students with different personalities and different ways of being in the world. Each person is unique. Students aren’t symbols, they are actualities. Like professors, they can’t be lumped into a category.

Most white professors don’t base their relationship to students on generalizations based on the race of their students or their gender or ethnic type, nor on their political or religious allegiance. This would be the very definition of prejudice. And yet this is what the professor at this college wants us to do. And this is what many people, especially in the West, are in fact doing—and they are the very people who claim to be the least prejudiced of us all.

This categorizing of people is dangerous. It seems to have divided our culture. It has led to deep resentments, persecution, harassment, firings, riots and sometimes bloodshed. One category of people blames another category and there is never any real dialogue or resolution. It appears that the focus on what a person symbolizes rather than who he or she is as an individual has become a long-term, problematic cultural fetish.

The Danger of Categorizing People

Gerald Schoenewolf, Ph.D.

Gerald Schoenewolf, Ph.D. is a licensed psychoanalyst in New York and has been practicing for over 37 years. He works with adults, couples, families, adolescents, and children. He has graduated from three psychotherapy institutes and received a Certificate in Psychoanalysis from the Washington Square Institute in 1981. He has been an Adjunct Assistant Professor of psychology at the Borough of Manhattan Community College since 2002 and has authored thirteen books on psychotherapy and psychoanalysis as well as four novels and a book of poems and drawings. More recently he wrote 20 screenplays (winning four first-place awards at festivals) and produced and directed two feature films.


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APA Reference
Schoenewolf, G. (2018). The Danger of Categorizing People. Psych Central. Retrieved on October 23, 2018, from https://blogs.psychcentral.com/psychoanalysis-now/2018/06/the-danger-of-categorizing-people/

 

Last updated: 12 Jun 2018
Last reviewed: By John M. Grohol, Psy.D. on 12 Jun 2018
Published on PsychCentral.com. All rights reserved.