Tuesday, August 12, 2008

On Stereotypes (My Own)

So, in trying to be (or become) a somewhat politicized person of color, I often find myself in conversations about race (in the real world or online). And, holy crap, do I get sick of some of the repetition that occurs in those conversations, primarily, claims by other people about not having their own prejudice or - worse yet - being "color blind."

Every time I hear that I want to stick a fork directly into my eardrum, so I never have to hear it again (or into that person's voice box). Seriously - every time.

So why does it bother me so much? Because it's so ridiculous. And unnecessary. We all know that everybody else has prejudices and stereotypes in their heads. We also know that, in spite of that fact, there are still plenty of conscious people out there trying to make things better. It's human nature - we like to group things (and each other), and that's impossible without adhering to stereotypes (because, otherwise, there are so many more ways that each individual is different from any other than alike.

Therefore, if we take that knowledge just one extra step, we get to this: we all have prejudices and stereotypes in our heads. Not just everybody else. All of us. That includes you. And me. And that's okay. Because unless we acknowledge those stereotypes and prejudices and consciously attempt to handle them, we'll just live them out in our daily lives - and contribute to them. I'll go into more depth on this sometime in the near future (re: ignoring our problems doesn't make them go away), but that's not the point of this post.

No, the point is to return to my previously-mentioned statement: that we all have stereotypes and prejudices. And that includes me.

See? I'm going to start off the honesty-fest here by just acknowledging my problems. At least the ones I'm conscious of. Because it's this consciousness that helps me reduce their effect (if not get rid of them entirely). It's this consciousness that helps me teach kids while minimizing the amount of harm I do them - minimizing how often they feel like an "other" in my room. Ideally - it would never happen. But I'm not naive, nor am I a liar, so I do everything I can to see it when it happens and make sure it never happens again.

The big one - especially in the context of where I live and work - is that kids of color (specifically black and Latino) tend to be more "at-risk" than white kids. "At-risk" of getting involved in gangs. "At-risk" of being affected by poverty, drugs, single-parent homes, etc.

Now, statistics would argue that this is "true." Maybe it is. But if so, it is only "true" on a vague, generalized level, and I do my kids injustice if that's where I come from when I work with them. If I assume that their parents are going to be less involved in their lives, or that education is not as important to them, or that gang affiliation is a likely factor getting in the way of their success. The minute I feed that - in any way - the minute I cause that to be a reality. That's when all my kids start thinking that that is a truth. And that's when justifications start falling down: why it's okay for cops to target kids of color, why kids of color can't get educated, what kind of parents men and women of color are. And that's not okay.

It also affects the white kids negatively. Not just because it enforces their own prejudices, but because it doesn't give them credit. So often I see youth workers in Portland that like to emphasize how "troubled" the kids they work with are. That take a sick sort of pride in how "at-risk" their kids are. And, generally, they emphasize the color of their kids - because we all know that kids of color "need us" so much more, that they are more violent and "hard to reach," etc. Again - I'll address this in another post, but the point is that this hurts the white kids out here that live in the same world. They might have a few more theoretical advantages, but the second I try to start playing the "who needs help more" game, I'm hurting kids. And judging them more or less fit for extra effort. It also deems certain kids less able (kids of color) to help themselves.

And that's bullsh**. However, it pervades our society and the work I do, and I will say flat out that it confronts me, at times. I often feel that - as one of the few people of color (especially males) in my line of work - I need to put in the extra effort to pull up kids of color. And that does everybody an injustice (myself, included).

And that bleeds out into the rest of my life, as well. When I run into a group of Latino or black kids, I am more likely to assume that they are like "my" kids - the kids I work with. Which might as well just play into the white world's fears of poor, gang-afflicted and thuggish kids of color. Which also ignores the fact that the majority of the kids in my school are white - and almost nobody in my school isn't affected by gangs, violence, drugs, etc. My "scariest," most violent kids happen to be white kids. And yet I still fall back on the media stereotypes when walking out in the world - in spite of my personal experiences.

Switching gears, there's my prejudices about white people - namely that they are naive and blind to their own privilege (and ignorance). Sure, I have all sorts of experiences to "justify" those feelings (On Not Trusting White People), but that doesn't change a thing in regards to what it is: a stereotype. A prejudice. I'll say flat out that I'm more likely to give a person of color the benefit of the doubt over a white person. And that's not okay. And - again - people of color in my life don't exactly have the best track record in terms of their own understanding of races or experiences not their own, yet I still act on these stereotypes.

Asian folks? I have to admit that I cringe inside when I buy something from yet another Asian corner-market store owner. I want them to bust up that stereotype because I know it feeds everybody else, and those feelings end up causing me to treat them differently. It borders on self-hate. Not that I hate Asian shopkeepers, but I tend to mentally deal with them as a stereotype - and not as the individuals they are - which is exactly what I get pissed off about other people doing. Sure - I give them the respect that I assume others do not, and I converse with them (going beyond the accent) like I assume others do not - but it's the same way, each time. As if it is not a different person at each shop, but the same person that I switch into "respecting Asian shopkeeper mode" with. And I hate that.

I feel uncomfortable at Chinese restaurants, assuming that the servers and everybody else are hating me and my mixed background. Or I feel that they are denying my "Chinese-ness" every time I end up with a fork. I lump them in with experiences I had in Chinatown with my grandmother - not accounting for variability in behavior and perceptions even though I live in a very different city, and those here have different stories.

I have stereotypes of rural white folks (assuming they want to shoot me) when most of the time, those are the white folks that have been most real with (and subsequently, respectful of) me. I have over-the-top prejudices against "hippies" and "hipsters." I have stereotypes of white youth workers. I assume that obese people are sad, deep down. I expect gay men to have secret crushes on me.

Get the picture? I'm filled with stereotypes and prejudices. And that's a bit scary - because I am so consciously aware of how media representations work on our generalized "social consciousness" - and yet that does not make me immune to any of it.

But this is the key - I search within to find my prejudices, and to expose them. Every time I interact with somebody I mentioned above, I reach out, grab the corresponding stereotype, and do everything in my power to throttle it. On a general level, that usually works. Not always, of course, but I seldom act on those stereotypes when I am so conscious of them.

No - it's the sub-conscious ones that do the damage. Those are the ones that cause real problems - because I am unable to reign them in without being consciously aware of them. And that is why I continue to examine my thoughts and feelings when confronted with any type of person, looking to find another stereotype to smash.

It's also why I get so scared and frustrated when I meet other people who tell me that they "have no prejudices or stereotypes." Because - if they really believe that - then there's just no hope, whatsoever.


Jennifer said...

Thank you so much for this post--it's raw and honest and speaks your truth in a way that really resonates with me (and I hope with others). In fact, I'd love to cross-post at some point (if you can let me know if I have permission either here or through my website email, that'd be great).

I'm trying to catch up on my blog reading and have got about half way through your most recent blog posts (the semester began last week and I've been SLAMMED with work). I've loved reading all your thoughts and am SURE that your readers (and many more) will find their way to your blog.

And as a comment about the actual post, I totally hear you and feel you on this one--because I have SO MANY STEREOTYPES of people--different and similar in some respects to your own--the one that I am most constantly faced with are my stereotypes of white Southerneres, particularly white Southern men. Sometimes they are totally debunked. Sometimes they are reinforced. And always, I have to remind myself that whether a white Southern man lives up to or defies my stereotype, what I hold about them is still a stereotype and not their own actual reality/truth.

It's hard though--in some cases we hold these stereotypes as a way to protect ourselves. At least this is partly what I imagine (in the most generous reading) of folks who clutch their purses when they pass young black men. Maybe my own defensive posturing (internal if not external) around white Southern men is an expectation I have that they will say something that will leave me angry/hurt and so I try to armor myself against their bigotry. But it is a stereotype that I hold that white SOuthern men are racist and will say something I find offensive. And truly, it does neither of us any good for me to be defensive. Because I'll never be able to truly armor myself against racism--it happens whether or not we're prepared for it sometimes. And sometimes you find yourself having a really genuinely interesting and insightful conversation with people, which helps break down that stereotype--for me at least.

CVT said...

Jennifer - thanks for the comment. And of course you can cross-post this whenever you want.

Your comments (regarding stereotypes as defense) make me want to delve into social psychology and theories of stereotype creation - but this isn't the time for it (although it might be in a post soon). All I can say is that a great read on this subject (and a book I go to often when dealing with this kind of thing) is:
"Us and Them: Understanding Your Tribal Mind" by David Berreby.

Check it out when you've got a little time free from all the paperwork.