Check out the photo above. What you think of this lamp-shaded man might tell you about yourself. Stick with me as I explore the human tendency to categorize.
He goes by the name KT. You might think of him as a beggar, but I beg to disagree. To me, he works for a living.
According to KT, his work day can last more than 10 hours. He performs in the heat, in the cold, and in the in-between. Remember what they say about postmen?
“Neither snow nor rain nor heat nor gloom of night stays these couriers from the swift completion of their appointed rounds.”
He stands up during those 10-hour days, with breaks to visit the rest room and eat. You say he isn’t doing anything? Try standing as long yourself. Better still, get the job guarding Buckingham Palace, a type of inaction thought to be an honorable vocation.
KT is a friendly man who told me he enjoys people and wants to make them smile. He displays no shame over his costume. To me, he is enormously clever. I say he is providing a service. Even if you don’t talk with him, seeing him brightens your day. Should you offer him a little money, you are likely to make yourself feel better still. He will shake your hand or give you a fist bump, no charge. Sometimes the passers-by request his presence in front of their place of business. On other occasions you’ll find him outside the Walgreens on State and Randolph in Chicago.
This man reframes the role of panhandler to that of someone who is pleased by pleasing you. Moreover, though you can see nothing of his face, he causes you to recognize him as a person.
Far too many people without adequate shelter spend the day on KT’s downtown streets. A few sell a newspaper called StreetWise, produced with the help of the homeless. You can buy a copy for $1.00. Most sit, with placards describing their plight in too many words to read as you pass. Their eyes are downcast. Quite a number stand, cup in hand, saying “God bless you” or “Have a nice day.” Many ask if you can spare some change or rattle the cup to communicate the same message. The majority of these downtown denizens are black.
Princeton University psychologist Susan Fiske and her colleagues have evaluated how the image of the “other” impacts us. Research participants reacted to a variety of photos while their brain activity was recorded. She and Lasana Harris predicted the experimental subjects would respond by dehumanizing extreme outgroups like the homeless. Pictures of those individuals produced a type of brain activation typical of disgust — the same kind of cerebral response characteristic of viewing objects, not people. Perhaps some of us protect our emotions by responding to fellow humans as things. The evidence of history indicates disgust with such Untermenschen (those called subhumans) can lead to casual mistreatment and much worse.
We choose to regard people as foreground or background, as human beings or things. I’ve made them transparent, absent, and invisible myself. Do we strip ourselves of our own humanity in so doing?
There are many reasons we ignore the downtrodden or rationalize our indifference. Some of those justifications appear in an earlier post: On Giving to Street People/ The explanations are not all easily dismissed.
Whatever you do, whatever you believe, don’t think these folks aren’t working. Most are not as creative as KT. Few are as upbeat. Some have had the life sucked out of them. Before you walk past the next time, ask yourself this: is standing or sitting on the concrete an easy thing to do?
If you say yes, try it some time.
The photos of KT and the author with KT were taken by Joni Dobson. They are posted with KT’s permission.