Stereotyping is basically a function of categorizing. Categorizing is a function of learning and perception. It’s how we learn the difference between an apple and an orange, a car and a plane, a man and a woman. But stereotyping is when we pass a value judgment on a defined category. If you put me in a room with a bunch of other black folks and one white person, you’re gonna realize that “one of these things is not like others.” It’s Sesame Street 101. But if you let the white person leave and you lock the rest of us in because we might be criminals then you haven’t just categorized us, you’ve stereotyped. If we could just stop at Sesame Street we’d all be okay. But it doesn’t work that way, or we don’t seam to let it.
I consider myself an ordinary decent person. But I tell you something, sometimes when I’m the only black person in a store and I get skipped over or ignored by an all white staff I start grumbling to myself about how those prejudiced bastards are discriminating against me. And then I do the reality check…
I don’t always assert myself, I’m not always quick to react when a cashier opens a new lane. I have a habit of browsing incessantly. I like to read every detail on packaging and compare every little feature of different products. And if I am in a bad mood, I’m not always the most approachable. Sometimes, I miss the fact that I was supposed to take a number, duh! Oh, and here’s an ironic one, I often let more than one sales person pass by without saying anything to them because they “look” like they are too busy, they “look” like they wouldn’t want to help me, or they “look” like they probably wouldn’t know the answer to my question anyway.
90% of the time when I go through that reality check, I can almost directly attribute my inability to get the proper service to one of those things. And when I do alter my behavior I almost always get some kind of service.
Now there are rare occasions where I’ve been treated outright despicably by sales people and I feel quite certain I was the victim of discrimination. An occasion comes to mind when I was trying to buy supplies at a hardware store and was rudely dismissed by an employee who refused to cut a piece of wood trim, claiming they didn’t provide that service, when I knew for a fact that they did. In fact not 10 minutes before he was providing a similar service to an older white male. Now I am not sure whether it was because I’m black, a woman or because I was dressed like a bum that day. But he clearly decided not to help me the moment he laid eyes on me. Honestly, I could see the disgust on his face. I actually went home and cried. Then I got pissed off and called the store manager to complain. Apparently the manager had gotten other complaints about this guy and he was fired shortly thereafter. I don’t know what I might have had in common with the other people who complained about him but I’ll bet that if you put the people he did help in a room with those he refused you’ll start singing “some of these things are not like the others. “ But I digress.
It is the identifiable commonalities in those that we stereotype that trip us all up. It’s what we think we see. Not what is really there. It’s categorizing gone awry. Your perceptions will lie to you if you’re not on your guard. Just because I’m in a store with all white sales people and I’m not being helped how I want, when I want, doesn’t mean I’m being discriminated against. Sometimes it does, but most of the time it’s just me not taking the appropriate actions. In other words, I saw something that wasn't there because I got lazy and I relied on a stereotype rather than insight. And lazy is the line that Ordinarily Decent Folk walk.
We all have stereotypes in our minds. We’re conditioned by our culture, families, friends, the media and even our personal experiences (usually the bad ones stick). The difference between Ordinary Decent Folks and the and Racists and Bigots of the world is that ordinary folks just tend to get lazy about their stereotypes. They don’t stop to think about it right away. But when they do, they say, “oh shit, that’s not me. That’s wrong. I know better than that.”
Even decent folks, in a fit of frustration, will make comments about “those illegal Mexicans” (when they don’t even know if the person is illegal) OR “why don’t blacks ever want to work for anything” (when there’s a whole class of people called “losers” who never want to work and they are a regular rainbow, believe me.) OR “why are all Republicans rich white people who are trying to screw the little guy” (when there are a lot of poor white/black/brown/yellow Republicans who are getting screwed by the guys they voted for.) Yes, decent folks will do all these things but they are not racists because when they do this they will have this pang of conscience in their stomachs (that’s where hits me anyway) and this little voice inside that says “you are being a jackass. Stop it now.” And then they will personally kick themselves in the ass. And if they say shit like that in front of their kids and the kid repeats it, then the decent fellow is going to reevaluate himself and then sit his kid down and say “I was wrong to say/do that and I want you to understand why.”
Basically, DECENT PEOPLE DO AND SAY DUMB SHIT. That is a fact of life. But what makes them decent is that they will kick themselves in the ass over it and do everything they can to change their behavior. Even if they can’t change the stereotype right away they are smart enough and DECENT enough to police their own behavior. And when they do that, they make the world a better, safer, friendlier and fairer place.
Now this is important… Ordinary Decent Folks are the GOOD Guys. Just cause they have stereotypes doesn’t mean they are closet bigots. As long as they don’t allow a stereotype to become so rigid and inflexible that it dictates their behavior then, in my opinion, they are the Good Guys.
Sure there are people who seam to have left all stereotypes behind and look only at the individual for who he or she is, but they are few and far between. I think maybe the Dahli Lama is one. And one would certainly hope the Pope is one or that he’s on the path. More than likely Mother Theresa qualified, but I haven’t read much about her beyond her press. I truly believe that Jesus is the epitome of this (he’d better be or his Dad’s gonna be pissed). But Son of God is a lofty target and one most of us won’t hit. We’ve got too many distractions. No, the best we can hope for is to be Ordinary Decent Folk who overcome our inertia, take our stereotypes head on and try to eliminate them or at least neuter them so we don’t pass them along to our kids.
Now true racists and bigots are not in the least bit lazy. They know damn well that they are lumping one big group together and they could care less. In fact they really don’t see what the whole big moral dilemma is. They are not going to question the stereotypes they’ve built up in their minds because to them stereotype=fact. But I don’t think a Racist and a Bigot necessarily have to be the same thing.
Now my personal definition of the different between a bigot and a racist is this.
Bigots think you are inferior and stupid. They don’t want you polluting their gene pool by marrying their kid. They don’t want you running their company. They get infuriated when you get all upidity and don’t know your place. They are frustrated by your claims for equality because you are an annoyance… like a flea that wants to wear their socks and drink out of their coffee cup. It’s quite obvious that you are not equal so demanding equality is ridiculous. They will vote to cut social programs that will help anybody who looks like you or lives like they assume you live. They do this because you are a loser and they don’t help losers. But if you do get a job and manage to get by they still will not respect you, so deal with it. They will not try to kill you, but if you get killed they will not be all broken up about it.
Racists also think you are inferior and stupid. They also don’t want you interbreeding with them; or working with or supervising them. They think you are big fat whiner and the direct cause of every evil in society, every disease and all of their own personal problems too. In fact you are the reason their dog ran away when they were a kid, and you caused their father to lose his job, become an alcoholic, sodomize their sister, flush their hamster and shoot their mother in the head. You are a crackhead and a gangbanger and a prostitute and a rapist. They may be all these things too, but it’s your fault if they are. They are certain that you are God’s only mistake and that the Almighty hates you like an unwanted child that He should have aborted when He had the chance. They feel sorry for God that He has to be reminded of His blunder every time He looks at you. They hate you with a passion and will do anything they can to put you down, and keep you down. They would really love it if you would just cease to exist. If you’re resistant to that suggestion they’d be happy to help facilitate the process. If any of their own people happens to decide that you really aren’t that bad, then that traitor can just burn in hell.
Racists and Bigots come in all flavors. Trust me. I’ve met bigots of every color and creed.
Racists scare me because they are more likely to kill me if they think they can get away with it. But Bigots really terrify me because they are smart. They know how to be politically correct and they know how to be political. They hide in plain site. They get voted into office and libraries get named after them. They could be your boss, your butcher, your lawyer, your doctor and sometimes even your clergyman. They fit in well with society and they are great influencers. They can with the proper advertising campaign corrupt Ordinary Decent Folk into joining their ranks. For example they can appeal to the faith of Ordinary Folk to deny homosexuals the same rights as heterosexuals under the law. They focus on the stereotype of immorality and magnify it under the glass of religious scrutiny and family values until the offenders burst into flames. Ordinarily Decent Folk don’t have a problem with gays. In fact they know one who’s very nice, they have an uncle who is gay, they just nominated their son to be made over by the Fab 5 and they’d never trust a straight hairstylist with their highlights anyway. But their latent stereotypes, that for the most part would never cause them to deny another person their inalienable rights to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness, can be twisted by Bigots with an agenda.
And that’s where we Decent Folk need to police our laziness. We need to really ask ourselves are we following the Golden Rule? Or reacting out of fear and lack of compassion? Only we can pull ourselves back from the brink. Only we Decent Folk can make a decision not to give in to the darkness within ourselves. And part of that means not overreacting when we perceive a slight. It means opening a discourse with those who can be won over by reason. It means being honest about our own stereotypes and being vigilant in trying to eliminate them (no matter how long it takes.) It also means we need to learn to take a little criticism (man do I have trouble with that) and listen to people that we hurt so we can understand where they’re coming from. We need to learn to apologize to each other and work together to make it right. At the same time we have to forgive without expecting restitution or heads to roll for every blasted little thing. I stumble on the forgiveness part personally, but I’m getting better.
I don’t know where I’m going with this but I think… maybe I’m tired of people telling me what a victim I am. Especially when one of those people is me. And I’m tired of being made to feel like a whiner when my rights and the rights of others are being eroded by closet bigots who don’t think we’re good enough to have them. Also I’m exhausted by racists who honestly don’t get that they are idiots no matter how you try to explain it to them. And really I’d love to see us Ordinary Decent Folk band together in a bit more solidarity rather than letting ourselves become the pawns of Bigots who are way too manipulative for their, and our, own good.
After I posted this I recalled a story my Aunt told me about a Sociology class she took at Rutgers. The professor asked a rather evenly mixed class of students to help him list common stereotypes first of blacks and then of whites.
For the first list terms like “big lips, big butts, lazy, criminal, welfare, sense of rhythm, large penises, and promiscuous” were shouted out. And all by the black students themselves, many of whom did so with gleeful amusement. The white students kept their mouths shut.
When it came time to do the “white” list terms like “flat ass, thin lips, no rhythm, small penises, etc.” were again shouted out gleefully and get this… for the most part by the black students again. Except for a few white students who felt a safer talking about their own people than another race, most of the white students just sat in stunned silence.
Now you can imagine that white students probably thought that their black classmates would think they were racists had they thrown out a few black stereotypes. That’s way we are in society too. Many blacks use the “n” word about each other all the time almost as a term of endearment; but will chafe when a white person attempts to use it in same “friendly” manner. Personally, I detest the word and never use it myself for any reason other than if I’m writing a character in a story and I deem it true to that character’s identity to use it.
But then why were the white students not more willing to perk up and offer obnoxious stereotypes about themselves? Maybe the “black list” hit a few nerves and they were still in shock that their fellows might be “on to” them. Maybe they were upset that their black classmates were enjoying this whole thing so much. Maybe they didn’t like that the black students where flaunting the “white stereotypes” so freely while they felt socially muzzled. I don’t know but I'd guess the last one.
The thing that’s revealing about that exercise is that the sensitive nature of discrimination in our society has the ability to silence whole groups of people unfairly… and not just minorities. We should feel free to discover our misconceptions and grow away from our weakness without fear of reprisal. But that’s not our world. It’s sad really. I’m not apologizing for people who act on a negative stereotype, I just don’t want to get in the way of them apologizing for themselves and to themselves for not rising above their weaknesses. Personally I love it when the people around me grow and become more enlightened. It inspires me to do the same. And it gives me hope for the future.