It happens in every culture, with every stereotype.. its inevitable to see a person and immediately assume their life. We often assume class, race and even sexuality based upon certain stereotypical triggers. I'm not saying that every person sets off in the morning to exhibit as much bias as possible - rather, I think people in this city often go as far as they can to not offend. We define our selves in a million ways - short, sensitive, smart, Latino, queer, Jewish, artist, type A personality, etc., etc. However, our conglomerate identity is tied up in our view of the "other." We define the "other" in their similarities and differences to ourselves.
(note: if interested in philosophical elaborations on the "other," read my boy Levinas, by far my fav Jewish philosopher, even if he is often impossible to read and understand clearly or quickly. I'm sure you'll be hearing more from me on him)
People see my fiance and all they see is that she is Korean, yet she was adopted by a white, Protestant family. Through other adoptions, I have more Asian people in my family and life. Yet when people pass her on the street they expect her to have a history and culture she neither experiences or understands.
I'm always hearing that I "don't look Jewish" because my nose is small, and interestingly enough, my Jewish friends always say my nose is my best feature. Folks often speak Spanish to me on the street because my appearance (hair, body, skin color, clothes) makes them believe I am Latina (often Puerto Rican here, but Cuban in Miami). People see similarities in me that cause them to place me in a context that is familiar to them. I'm sure if I was seen strolling down a street in Norway, the locals there would have a different idea of my heritage/history/ethnicity. Or Israel. Or Africa. Or Missouri.
I may make jokes about how everyone here thinks I'm Latin... but I'm actually damn proud that other folks want to claim me as their own.
To get Jew-y: I get tons of sideways glances when I wear pants etc., to an event for my good friend who is orthodox. And you can bet she gets looks wearing long skirts and shirts in a heat wave, while spending time with my friends. It is all about context, all about how we view ourselves and standards for dress/behavior.
We want to find similarities (guess the Jew on the train) just like we want to pick apart differences... We build communities on shared histories, shared interests, shared humor. I am not saying this could ever end - could humanity really stop categorizing ourselves? I'm not that optimistic, or that I think it should. I won't get all "we are the world" on you but identity is what makes us feel whole, gives us a place in our communities. We thrive on definitions and its in bridging the definitions that we learn anything. We just need to make damn sure we watch who we are damaging in the process -- uh... racial profiling anyone?