I’m embarrassed to admit that I’ve spent most of my professional life stereotyping people. Of course, we didn’t call it stereotyping. We called it market segmentation. You and I have been grouped into so many market segments that your head would spin if you knew the half of it. I’m not just talking about name, address, age and gender. Those parameters are mere child’s play compared to the deep depths of what today’s data can provide. And it’s not just loyalty cards and website subscriptions that are putting you in segments either – it’s all of your behavior. If you drive a Honda, love to garden, live in a house of a certain value, go to the opera, go to church and give to charities, then you are probably in a segmentation with many other people who share all of these traits. I won’t go into detail about how all of this helps to market products, but trust me, we can pinpoint our message with laser precision to motivate people.

I’ve been tasked with putting groups of people into very specific categories for many clients over the years. However, I am often perplexed by the number of times I’ve walked into a client’s office and they’ve told me that they want to go after the ‘African American market’, or the ‘Gay market’, or the ‘Latino market’, or the ‘Asian market’. They talk about communicating with each group as if the entire group is one homogenous unit, rather than consisting of a complex and diverse group of people. It’s as if Americans of European descent can be segmented down a thousand ways, yet minorities just fall into the one category that makes them a minority.  Of course, once a client realizes that they can make more money by not grouping minority groups into one homogenous group, then they quickly change their practices.

From an evolutionary standpoint, human beings were built to stereotype. The brain is really very good at quickly separating things into categories; it’s how we have survived.  In prehistoric times, you wouldn’t have to have seen many of your friends being eaten by a saber-toothed tiger to put saber-toothed tigers in the “dangerous” category.  The problem is, of course, that quickly putting people into categories is both degrading and not very useful.

We see Muslims being called-out in the media, so our mind puts them into the “dangerous” category like they are a saber-toothed tiger. The problem is that all saber-toothed tigers are dangerous but all Muslims are not. When it comes to putting people into convenient categories, our evolutionary predisposition to stereotyping gets it REALLY wrong. Not convinced? Then do the math.

The absolute highest estimate of the number of Muslims who are in ISIS is 200,000 (U.S intelligence estimates the number to be much lower, between 9,000 to 18,000). With 1.6 million Muslims worldwide, even with the highest estimate of 200,000 Muslims being part of ISIS, that still puts the percentage of Muslim terrorists at .000125 percent of the Muslim community. Hardly worth the wave of panic that goes through many people’s minds when they find they are seated beside a Muslim on an airplane.

I wonder what would happen if I could remain hyper-focused on the fact that my mind is continually putting people into categories? I pretend like I’m past all of that stereotyping. After all, I see each minority group as a rich and diverse group of amazing individuals. However, just as soon as I’m patting myself on the back about my depth of understanding for the human race, something is said that I don’t like and I put every viewer of Fox News into one big category in my head. (Please forgive me if you’re a Fox News fan. I’m working on it.)

I suppose we’ll never be able to completely stop putting people into categories. However, real reconciliation will only be able to start only when we become acutely aware that we are constantly categorizing others and we strive to move our relationships beyond our own internal market segmentation.

Dreisbach_bwDavid Dreisbach serves as Director of Communications for the Diocese of Southern Ohio. Contact him at ddreisbach@diosohio.org.