Unconscious Prejudice and Climbing Shoes.

Yesterday, me and my entirely lovely housemate C were in the unfortunate position of having no option but to go shopping. In Dundrum town centre. On a Saturday afternoon. Yes, it was every bit as bad as you think. But we’re recovering nicely.

One of the things that we needed to do was buy some climbing shoes for C. She knew precisely what she wanted the shoes to do, she had been to all the outdoor shops in town to no avail, and the only thing left for it was Dundrum, where there is a very lovely Snow & Rock where she got some perfectly good climbing shoes* a while back.

It was late-ish by the time we got there. There was only one person working in the climbing section, who was busy discussing shoes with two guys when we got there. We figured the polite thing to do would be to wait for him to be finished with them, and in the meantime we had a bit of a browse around. C tried on some shoes that were already out, I checked out some climbing books.

Those guys took ages to pick out their shoes. No biggie. They’re pretty specialised kinds of shoes, it makes sense that people would take a while picking them out. When the sales guy walked past us (frequently- we were between the other customers and the storeroom), we tried to catch his eye to indicate that we were about when he was done with the others. But he didn’t seem to pick up on us. Odd.

It took them about a half-hour to pick out their shoes and go. When they were gone, the SG came by where we were waiting again- but didn’t interact with us at all until C asked him if she could try on some shoes. He looked up, surprised, and said that the shop was closing now.

C told him that we had been here waiting for a half an hour while he was with the other guys. Again, surprise. And then, “Oh, I thought you two were here with them!”

Let’s go over some things, shall we? We entered the shop at a different time to them. We didn’t say hello to them or talk to them. We spent our time in a part of the shop several metres away from where they were trying on shoes. During this time we picked up shoes, C tried shoes on, and I browsed climbing gear. During the half-hour we were waiting, we didn’t interact with them in any way.

But we were two girls, they were two guys, we were in an outdoor shop- so I guess we must be their girlfriends?

After that, the SG was more than polite. He wasn’t patronising in the slightest. He asked C what kind of shoes she wanted and for what kind of climbing. They discussed it, he made recommendations, she compared a few different shoes, and twenty minutes or so later we left the shop with a brand new pair of lovely shoes to climb in. He treated her like just another climber, he was very professional. And once he realised his slip-up, he did let us stick around in the otherwise-closed shop for as long as it took.

And that is what unconscious prejudice looks like. People who don’t know that they’re prejudiced. Those of us who, when we’re aware of it, treat people equally. Who, quite likely, act in an egalitarian manner the vast majority of the time in our circles of friends and family. Who don’t see ourselves as sexist, or racist, or homophobic or ablist. But lurking in our subconscious, there are so many tiny ways that we can’t get past our conditioning. Conditioning, often, by equally well-meaning people.

It’s why it’s so dangerous. Unconscious prejudice lives in the cracks between the actions that we’re aware of and the things we do automatically while our minds are elsewhere. It’s in the snap judgements that we have to make hundreds of times a day to function in large-scale societies. And because it’s in the things we are unaware of, the things that we don’t even remember doing, it’s incredibly difficult to do anything about. And it does have real-world effects. While that incident yesterday was only a small thing, it’s one of many. It’s one of many that was notable enough that me and C both remarked on it. It’s ordinary enough that we were both able to come up with several similar instances and patterns that we have grown to expect. The vast majority of which are carried out by people who don’t know they’re doing them. And none of which are those which I’m sure we carry out ourselves every day, in a throwaway comment here, an extra few seconds of attention there. Innumerable tiny things.

By the way, before I finish: I’m not saying anything against Snow & Rock, or the salesperson there yesterday. Like I said, he was entirely professional, and they had some great shoes. I’d recommend the place, in fact. I’m just using one instance to illustrate a widespread phenomenon.


*Which have now been passed on to me. Yay! No more climbing failing abysmally to scramble up a wall in trainers!

5 thoughts on “Unconscious Prejudice and Climbing Shoes.

  1. I have to admit that this is a very normal thing in outdoor shops. I worked in one for about 8 months once upon a time. The funny thing was even though all three of the other sales people were female, any woman who walked in they always assumed was the girlfriend of someone already there.

    The scary part of that was that while two of those women couldn’t tell the difference between a mountain and a hole inthe ground, one of them was a very active extreme sportswoman. And she was worse than the other two. The attitude in those places is often one that women don’t partake of extreme sports. Have to admit though I was as bad in the reverse direction. I actually left male customers to help female ones, fobbing the boys off on one of my co-workers. 😉

    As for the invisible predjudice, how do oyu think it relates to things like Femme-invisibility? I’m thinking of a certain day you once posted about on the long lamented Technodyke…

  2. Ps. I adore the new theme.and layout.

  3. Thanks for the post. A great example, and very well put.

    I’ve had many more experiences in American outdoors shops (really, just the REI chain nationwide) than in (a couple tiny) Irish outdoors shops, but I feel pretty confident in saying that I can’t imagine this happening in an American REI. That could boil down to anything, though: Maybe more women who go into American REIs are into extreme sports. Maybe those salespeople have been trained to ask everyone if he/she needs help.

    You wrote that unconscious prejudice is “in the snap judgements that we have to make hundreds of times a day to function in large-scale societies.” I’d agree with that, but I think that it’s a bit more deep-rooted and natural an instinct than that. Well before large-scale societies, people probably needed the ability to see a shape and, at a glance, stereotype it as, say, threatening, in order to survive. Obviously, that’s a much more natural and direct urge than assuming that girls don’t buy climbing shoes, but I think our subconscious obsession with finding patterns and organizing things into stereotypes goes back to that. It was when we “civilized” ourselves into the large-scale societies that the stereotypes stopped being useful and, in many cases, became detrimental. At least, that’s where I’m at as I’m mulling things over right now.

    Glad you girls got the shoes, though! And really glad the salesperson shaped up after realizing his mistake–I really think the most important thing to keep in mind is how we deal with and learn from such mistakes.

  4. In fairness, the fact that it happened in an outdoor shop might’ve been coincidence, as nothing like that’s happened to me in that shop before, or in other outdoor shops for that matter. So maybe the guy was just on the last half-hour of a Saturday shift in Dundrum and consequently a bit brain-no-worky.

    (I was not this forgiving at the time, but I wanted those shoes enough to go to Dundrum! On a Saturday! Thwart at your peril! (So worth it, though.))

    IS climbing commonly thought of as a boy thing? I did not know that, but I frequently live under a rock as far as social expectations go, so that’s not much of an indicator.

  5. Oh my goodness. I would have been livid. And I would have shown it through confrontational interrogation. (“Why would you think we were with them? We came in at different times and were trying things on!” *glare*) And then I would have been sorry that I exploded after he was polite (and hopefully apologetic.) =/ But not too sorry.

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