Snap Judge

Hey. Tirzah here. As commonly as I post fiction here without any warning, I should mention that the following is not fiction, but a story of my own from my workplace, a sporting goods store.

As I was bagging up some weights for a pair of middle-aged women, a young man walked out without buying anything.

“Have a nice day,” I called to him as he passed us, and he glanced over and gave me an acknowledging nod.

I unconsciously ran him through a mental scanner, and with two seconds of consideration, I judged him to be pleasant, possibly reserved, probably polite, in his latter teens, and handsome. He moved with a smooth and noble bearing that would have been one of the first things I’d have mentioned about him, if I’d been describing him in a book, along with his notable height and the undiluted darkness of his skin.

All that evaluation took place, like I said, in the couple of seconds of our exchange. My mind put it into no more words at the time than, Well he seems nice, I looked back to my customers. He continued out the door.

The lady at the counter leaned forward. “That man stole some shoes,” she murmured to me. “He walked out with brand new shoes.” The other nodded.

My heart fell. Not because we’d been stolen from, (always highly irritating,) but because that would mean my judgement had failed.

“Really? You saw?” He hadn’t seemed like a thief. Working in retail, one comes to get a sense for shoplifters and cons, and he’d set off none of my red flags.

They nodded soberly.

I might have questioned them further about why they said that—What had they seen? Had they seen him trying on those shoes in the back? Had they seen him walk in with other shoes?—but speed is essential for any hope of product recovery, so I called my manager who called security who took a look around the place. He dealt with them while I continued to deal with customers.

Then my manager called me to the front of the store, and pointed out at a car. “Is that him?”

I peered out, and sure enough, sitting inside a car in the parking lot was the young man who walked out past me.

“Yeah, that’s him.”

My manager scoffed. “Him? He was in here with his mom, she’s still here; I was showing her some fishing poles. He was nowhere near the shoe department, he was standing with us the whole time. Then she told him to go turn the car on and start the AC so it would be cool for her when she got out to it, and he took the keys and walked straight to the door. I could see him the whole time.

So, basically just a kid who happened to be wearing new shoes.

JOHN: Basically just a cab that happened to slow down. SHERLOCK: Basically. JOHN: Not the murderer. SHERLOCK: Not the murderer, no. JOHN: Wrong country, good alibi. SHERLOCK: As they go.

John Watson and Sherlock Holmes weigh in on the matter.

Security went on its way without bothering him. My manager went back to work. And my heart lifted again, glad—glad, not just because there’d been no theft, but because I’d thought my snap judgement worth something, and this was evidence that it is.

Then, hashing it over in my mind, I began to feel uncomfortable. Uncomfortable with the two middle-aged women who’d called him out as a thief, and their immediate assessment. Would they have jumped to the same conclusion, I wondered, if the tall teenager with new shoes and a stately air had been white? Studies suggest they wouldn’t have.

And what if my manager hadn’t known that young man couldn’t have stolen those shoes? What if the lad in question hadn’t been able to easily prove he’d gotten the shoes elsewhere?

The words of those two women could have been the gateway to a travesty of justice. They might have marred the life of an innocent by a simple misplaced snap judgement. And I could have been a part of that.

Now I assess those women. I don’t think they’re evil, or vindictive, or trying to throw their weight around. I think they only wanted to see justice done. Their view was skewed by a bias they probably don’t even know that they have—a bias they probably don’t even want to have.

Take care, I say. Every one of us has some such misconstruction in our hearts. Maybe it’s naught to do with race, but with attractiveness, age, disability, class, job, gender, political affiliation, industry. Heck, I’ve caught myself associating glitter makeup with vapidity, when in truth, glitter makeup best serves as an indicator that the wearer enjoys glitter and makeup.

Look to the subtle edifices that lie behind your instant judgments, search out the shadowy, uncomfortable corners of your brain’s perception habits, and take care.

Do you notice bias in they way people see you?

What do you think of your own judgement, and how much do you think it might be skewed by assumptions you don’t even know exist there?

Do you think it’s especially important that writers and storytellers seek to be aware of their own subtle biases?

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4 comments

  1. I think one can certainly tell involving stories on a plot level without self-awareness — knowledge of one’s own privileges or lack thereof in relation to the world’s various hierarchies — but if one’s life is in a privileged bubble, how universal is his or her fiction?

    For a long time, literature as we think of it has been part of a culture that has falsely and selfishly put whiteness on a pedestal, at the expense of other people’s humanity.

    I’m sure those women don’t mean to be racist, too, but it’s easy to image they read books like “The Help” and see the validation of people of color through a white protagonist as natural.

    That, a novel by someone who is privileged about the plight of people who are not, is most normal template for mainstream fiction that features people of color. Writing allows us to walk in the shoes of others, but being made to feel like one’s looks add up to essentially being bad is something that many people know firsthand — and they’re the ones whose opinions count the least..

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