Over the past several weeks, we have been treated to stories which make us question our default categorizations of others. First we have Caitlyn Jenner, who transitioned from heralded male athlete to a woman notable for her bravery and beauty. Then we have the interesting story of Rachel Dolezal, an NAACP leader who, as it turns out, is the daughter of Caucasian parents, but who assimilated herself so thoroughly into black culture that she self-identified as a black woman. These stories initially make us question: What, really, is race? What is gender? Are they social constructs as much as they are biological? Are these individuals trying to present themselves as someone they are not?
I think these are the wrong questions to ask. A better question to ask is how do we arrive at the categorizations of race and gender? Our brains are, first and foremost, sensory filters and pattern recognition systems. Unfiltered, raw "reality" is probably a lot messier than we are aware of.
I am reminded of one of my favorite quotes from Alfred Korzybski, who once wrote that "the map is not the territory." One map shows us roads and intersections, route numbers and overpasses. Another map of the exact same location shows us hills and valleys, streams and woodlands. We are looking at the exact same piece of ground, yet seeing entirely different things. The first type of map is useful for expedient transport, the latter better suited for a detailed examination of the environment of that particular locale.
With that concept in mind, picture Ms. Dolezai. What clues do you have to her race? Her skin tone; her hair; her association with certain political causes. Characteristics all of which are malleable, and which can be changed with little difficulty.
Do the same with Ms. Jenner. What makes her a woman? Her hair. Subtle distinctions, such as eyebrow shape and size, brow prominence, nose shape and size. The curvature expected of a woman's body rather than a man's. All of these characteristics are also malleable, though with greater effort than in Ms. Dolezai's case.
This simple thought experiment makes you conscious of just a few of the many thousands of sensory discriminations we make in order to arrive at a pattern, or classification of something. In either case, noting these differences is partially hardwired, as there is evolutionary advantage to recognizing and classifying a potential mate or potential ally or enemy.
But a huge amount of your filters are culturally determined, beginning with the language you use and the behaviors of those around you. So, what happens if you change those filters? What would happen if you could consciously switch filters like you change the maps of a landscape?
Whoa. You just opened up an entirely new world of possibilities. As I have learned from being a doctor, the more perspectives you have from which to view a problem, the more readily you can solve it. Similarly, the more perspectives you have from which to evaluate race and gender, the more expansive is your range of responses to relate with others.
By looking at others, not through predetermined lenses of gender and race, but through filters of your own making, you achieve tremendous freedom to engage the world on your own terms. And who doesn't want more freedom?