When I first read of the survey (one story on it linked here) of how members of the public consistently overestimate the percentage of gays in the general population, I was not terribly surprised. Dismayed, yes – as it appeared that the younger cohort estimated the proportion of gay to straight at almost a third, which I thought would have run slap up against that cohort’s observation of the world around them. The actual percentage is round and about two percent, which tracks with my own real-world observation – but I can hardly blame the kids for assuming a much higher figure, knowing how many media creations prominently feature gay characters. Looking at TV shows, movies, books, games, the celebrity culture … one might very well assume that ‘gay’ constitutes a much larger portion of public space than they actually occupy, on a strictly numerical basis. The various media reflect ‘gay’ at several times their normal size. Like my neighbor’s basset hounds; it’s not that there are many, but the bassets are so very loud, a casual observer might assume that there are many more, based on the racket.
Anyway, I was briefly amused by the whole matter at the time – of media-cultural perception at odds with observed reality. But in the last few weeks, what with the continuing protests regarding the deaths of black men in altercations with police officers, I’ve begun to wonder if there isn’t a whole ‘nother cultural perception at odds with reality, only this time it is the reality that isn’t observed, just the perception covering it over it in a particularly opaque veil.
I ought to start off on this particular thought-train by noting that I have lived in South Texas now for a little less than twenty years; likely I am affected by the same kind of cultural veiling, in that I don’t really see ‘Hispanic’ as the ‘other’ when I look at a crowd of people here; I’m not mentally breaking down that crowd into racial/cultural components. Spoken Spanish and Spanish surnames, conjunto music and bright colors, hot pepper salsa and the Virgin of Guadalupe are all just a part of the background white noise as it were; comfortable, appreciated, and expected. Even going up into the Hill Country, where the common surnames tend to be Germanic and Anglo rather than Hispanic – it still appears pretty homogenous – and also pretty pale to medium-tan colored to me. The occasional doom-laden and/or gloating-at-the-prospect forecast that ‘white’ people will be a minority in these here United States which appears now and again in discussions of racial categories seems pretty laughable, when I look around where I live. Not saying it wouldn’t happen, of course; but consciously or unconsciously, as humans we tend to base assumptions about the relative unknown on what we do know and observe around us in real-life, real-time.
And I wonder, when considering the near-riots in Ferguson, and the principally black protests – especially in cities with a large black population – I’ve begun to wonder if the urban black population doesn’t see themselves at several times their normal size. A combination of self- or economic isolation in particular neighborhoods, media saturation, the results of affirmative action in hiring for everything from federal jobs to high-profile media personalities, half a century of media, intellectual and political stroking … has all this and more given African-Americans an unconscious self-visualization of themselves at several times natural size? When the average African-American thinks of themselves as part of the American public, are they thinking of themselves as a much larger and more influential part of it then they really are? Discuss.