The Default Description: An Example of Ubiquity

Though I still haven’t posted my definition of the Ubiquity Principle, I think I can get away with posting on a subject that partakes of it. I might’ve held off from this post a bit longer, but find myself so well prompted by a tweet from earlier today that I can no longer resist the plunge.

I’m sure it must’ve been around thirty years ago that I first thought of the Default Description. The Default Description is an expression of ubiquity that derives from your race and/or ethnicity. What’s odd about the Default Description is that it’s defined by what it does not include. I was reminded of it today, and prompted to post about it by this tweet from Molly Crabapple:

Molly’s tweet is a pertinent observation and a good jumping-off point for posting about the Default Description.

The community I live in now is also where I grew up, and Medford, Oregon was far less diverse racially and ethnically then than it is today, even granting that Medford isn’t very diverse right now. I have no recollection of encountering a black kid in school until I was at least a 7th grader, and it might’ve been later than that. What I do recall more specifically than the time frame is the state of mind I was in when I was describing this kid (whose name I may have once known) to a few friends of mine. I know I must’ve described him as black, because it made sense to use such a clearly distinguishing characteristic in my description, and my state of mind was such that I was quick to notice that I’d done this. What I realized shortly thereafter was that whenever I was describing someone who shared my race and ethnicity, I never bothered to include such information. I mused on scenarios in which I would describe someone who was black or Mexican or something else other than bog-standard white American to a friend or acquaintance and leave out this strangely important information. I always suspected any later reply I might get would correspond to something like, “Why didn’t you tell me he was black?!” And flipping that around, I imagined the (ridiculously mild) opprobrium I would suffer if I included racial and ethnic content every time I described someone to someone else. “Uh, why are you telling me he’s white?”

Our features, the genetic, geographic, and other accidents of our birth all become commonplace to each of us. We internalize that commonness in such a way as to make anything even slightly uncommon worthy of note. By the same token, what’s common need never be mentioned. Like all ubiquitous things, the race and ethnicity you share with your community will tend to fade into the background, given no thought without some kind of prompt.

I think more prompting, which is to say more self-awareness, is valuable.

Colorblindness has been offered as a conceptual solution that could conceivably address, among other things, what I’ve just posted about, but I’m not a fan. I like Michelle Alexander’s approach better.

'The goal, in my view, isn't to be blind to one another, but to see each other as we are, with our full range of experience, all of our baggage as well as all the beauty that we bring, and still love one another, still care about each other. I don't want to say to the young kid who grew up in the hood and who's being stopped and hounded by the police, "I don't care if you're black." Of course I care. I care about you and your experience and I see you as you are.' -- Michelle Alexander on colorblindness, from White Like Me

The Default Description is a description of someone which, due to the ubiquity of their features relative to yours and your community’s, does not include references to race or ethnicity.

 

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