Column: Outdated population classifications cause arbitrary discrimination
Physical appearance, over scientific reasoning, should not decide who gets what.
Feb. 10, 2017
The opinions expressed by The Maneater columnists do not represent the opinions of The Maneater editorial board.
Jessie Staley is a freshman studying political science at MU. She is an opinion columnist who writes about student life for The Maneater.
What circles do you have to fill in on scantrons before taking a standardized test? Race, age and gender are sometimes on there after your name. They are fairly conventional classifications, especially when stating one’s identity. Of course, on a standardized test, they are normally meant for census statistics. However, other than population records, there really is no relevance between a person’s identity and these three labels.
There is no functional reason to keep record of race in our nation’s census. Socioeconomic status and immigration are important records to keep, but there is no legitimacy in keeping track of the black, white, latino and “other” populations as long as they are American. These classifications, legitimized through record-keeping, are still no more than arbitrary labels that, despite their lack of foundation or purpose, dictate a great portion of people’s lives.
Why do we allow people’s lives to be ruled by arbitrary classifications? Race and socioeconomic status are not scientific nor plausible sources of evidence for me to evaluate someone’s capacity to learn. Age does not in itself describe the amount of knowledge and experience a person has collected. Sex, distinguished by having a penis or a vagina, does not biologically indicate significance in the colors pink or blue. These popular classifications for people are baseless social constructs that create enormous consequences.
How is it that a person’s worth can be accurately portrayed by their paycheck or their parent’s paycheck? How can someone’s IQ show up in the color of their skin? How can a human being’s ability to do their job or to have a career be based on their sexual organs? These classifications are about as well-founded as the Salem witch trials. Labeling and classifying people’s being and abilities off their appearance is absurd. Grouping people together who look similar is even more nonsensical. Many times, people of similar outer characteristics or race have no more biological connection to each other than people who have the exact opposite appearance. Race is strictly a social construct.
I understand the lack of resources that were available when these social constructs were created. It was not possible to categorize people based on their non-visible biological or psychological qualities because the necessary tools and knowledge had not been discovered yet. It was necessary to distinguish people in some way, so they used visible characteristics like age, sex and complexion. There’s no excuse now. With the technological revolution, we have the resources to create new social constructs on more stable, or at least more scientific, foundations. Yet we’re stuck in a social norm that decides who people are with the same amount of legitimacy as a hysteria diagnosis was in the past.
The growing population is becoming less and less defined. There are more “mixed” people than ever before, with 6.9 percent of the U.S. population identifying as multiracial. Times have changed with more sexual freedom and gender fluidity; an estimated 1.4 million people in the U.S. identify as transgender. These numbers reflect that our classification system is not only baseless in its origin, but also impractical. We cannot maintain rigid classifications if people are not capable of fitting into them.
Age is becoming more of just a number and less of a definition of maturity and intelligence as more students skip grades. The percentage of gifted or cognitively accelerated students make up around 6 to 10 percent of the student population, totaling 3 million to 5 million students. Even when we use classifications such as age to sort people into groups like classes or grades, there is still a noticeable amount of the student population that moves through these groupings. The classifications put in place do not supply the proper identification for these students in an educational environment, which forces them to move up or down in grade level, but they are still told they are meant to be in a specific place because of their age.
It is time to accept that you know nothing more about an individual’s personhood from their skin color or age than if you had never seen them at all. Ageism, racism, classism, sexism: All of these things are possible only because we have accepted judging people by their outer appearance as an acceptable form of classifying people. It is time to destroy our old, B.C. social constructions for classifying groups or types of people. There are plenty of other ways to classify people that actually matter or at least don’t make false assumptions. Our current accepted classifications of sex, race, and age are unhelpful and encourage discrimination both on a governmental and societal level.
If we stop seeing these physical features as legitimate classifications and labels and start to re-establish the classification system with a more logical and helpful labeling system, then we will have a better chance of stopping social discrimination. Breaking this social norm by getting rid of race-tracking in the census and gender-specific social norms will help defeat the assumptions and prejudices we make based off of outer appearances. Changing the labels to something not physically identifiable would potentially help repair the social biases these labels encourage and create new priorities other than physical appearance.