Why Are Only Some Differences Socially Significant?

Why are only some differences socially significant? - cartoon faces of various races and genders

As human beings, each of us is more alike than we are different. In fact, we all share 99.9% of the same genes, according to the National Human Genome Research Institute. Despite all of this sameness, we pay a lot of attention to differences… but only some differences are socially significant. The rest, we don’t give a lot of thought to.

Physical features

Some people, due to a minor genetic variation, have a widow’s peak. I have this; it’s where the hairline forms a V-shape at the centre of the forehead. A widow’s peak is often noticeable, but if anyone does happen to pay attention, they’re unlikely to care. They may find it more or less attractive, but they’re not going to judge me on who I am as a person.

However, if someone has natural (as in “Afro”) hair, that’s going to garner both attention and judgment… but only in certain places where it’s seen as a socially relevant difference. In Zimbabwe, no one’s going to bat an eyelash.

Whether I have brown, blue, or hazel eyes, no one particularly cares. Whether I’m 5’2″ or 5’9″, no one particularly cares, although I might be more attractive to some people than others.

However, if someone has Asian, Black, or Indigenous features, that gets noticed, and there can be judgments attached to that.

What we wear

We also selectively decide what’s socially relevant when it comes to how we adorn ourselves. In many places, men going shirtless is no big deal. There are far fewer places where it’s considered socially acceptable for women to go shirtless.

Religious garb is likely to be noticed and have social meaning attached, whether that’s clothing or a head covering like a turban, kippah or hijab. We’re not simply noticing that someone has something different on their head than the hat we’re wearing; that’s a superficial difference that somehow manages to make the entire person Other.

Body size

Body size is something that’s become more socially relevant in recent decades. The notion of “thin is in” and fat-shaming is very modern. A few centuries ago, if you were on the larger side, people would probably assume you were wealthy enough to eat well. Now, you face moralization of fatness from health professionals and social connections alike, and you’re considered lazy and all that associated nonsense.

What’s socially significant is arbitrary

It’s easy to assume that the differences we notice and pay attention to are inherently the most meaningful, but they’re not. They’re entirely arbitrary, and they’re only socially significant because society has chosen to select them.

Differences don’t have to divide us. You don’t see clashes between widow’s-peaked and non-widow’s-peaked people. No one is facing discrimination when trying to get a job as a person with blue eyes versus brown eyes. Someone with blond hair isn’t more likely to get stopped by the cops than someone with red hair. Differences are only bad when we decide they’re bad.

I think that’s a flaw in the idea of colour-blindness. Not because it’s non-PC to say, but because saying that differences don’t exist kind of misses the boat. Differences do exist, but that can be a good thing; it’s only a bad thing because people have decided it is.

The fact that these socially selected differences are arbitrary means that they can be changed. If my widow’s peak and brown eyes can come together with a non-widow’s-peaked blue-eyed person, maybe everyone else can embrace the differences too.

Social justice and equality - graphic of Earth surrounded by diverse children

The Social Justice & Equality page has info and resources on a wide variety of social issues.

13 thoughts on “Why Are Only Some Differences Socially Significant?”

  1. Great question. We are all unique in some way shape or form. We come in all kinds of different shapes, sizes and colours. But don’t be fooled. We are all human. Lovely post 🙏

  2. Minneapolis city parks approved women to go topless just like men. We do not like to see topless men; we also think the sexualization (by men) of women’s breasts should not penalize women’s equal rights. While we personally might be more comfortable with no one topless, the equal rights meet our needs for inclusion and integrity.

      1. Younger Child showed us this today:

        Chorus from song “Xray” by Moyana Olivia:

        X-Ray, look at me through an X-Ray
        So hopefully my skin won’t be the only thing you see
        X-Rays, maybe we all need X-Rays
        (We all need X-Rays)
        So you can learn to love the soul that lives inside of me
        (Love the soul, yeah)

        Music video: https://youtu.be/s4eftTx56CA

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