How do we distinguish between what is true or characteristic about a people or a culture, and what is a stereotype? This is a question that I ask myself periodically as I catch myself and others labeling an entire people group, nationality, gender or social class on account of a few interactions with people from that group. I find that such labeling comes rather easy for most of us in that as a people we are always looking for a way to associate with people, especially when we do not know much about them and where they are from. I mean, how easy is it for you to perhaps meet a few people from India and begin to see all Indians that way on account of the people that you just met. You may not know their language much less anything about their culture, but at least in your mind you know that they are a particular way based on your interactions with a few.
Yet sometimes, we do this not to associate with others but to distinguish ourselves from them. Collectively as a human race, we are some pretty insecure people and so anyway we can prove our worth, and our value by disproving that of another we will do it. Think of how easy it might be for you to label those who have attained a lower-level of education than you. You might call them lazy, worthless, unsuccessful and so many other things simply to make yourself look better to yourself, even though you yourself barely made it out of undergrad. Or if you are a Christian, how might you stereotype unbelievers who smoke, drink and do whatever else that unbelievers do? Although you might not be the best Christian in the world, at least you are not like those people!
I can recall an instance of such taking place when I worked for TCF Bank in Minnesota. I remember being in my boss’s office trying to figure out a problem that a customer was having with their account. Unfortunately the problem was beyond us and so we needed to call another department within TCF to get further clarification as to what was going on. As my boss made the phone call and spoke to the person on the other end of the phone, I patiently waited because I knew that the call would not last terribly wrong. I suppose, however, that the conversation with the person on the other end was not too pleasant in that immediately as my boss hung up the phone, she asked me a rhetorical question, “Why are all black women so aggressive when they speak?” Although I am sure she probably did not expect me to answer and even though she was my boss, I could not help but to call her out on the carpet for that one as being a black woman myself I took great offense at that. I personally know that this is not the case, in that I am not aggressive and angry sounding when I speak, although I know of several black women who are. But then again, I also know of white women and white men, and Asian women, and African women, and Latino men – all of whom are aggressive speakers. But such has much more to do with who they are as an individual (or perhaps what they had for breakfast) than the culture that they represent.
I also remember several instances where people in speaking of persons of Latin descent referred to such as Mexicans. “Oh, Mexicans live over there and they are noisy,” I heard one boy say. I asked him how he knew that they were Mexicans and he did not know, but was sure that they were. I have also heard others say similar things, saying that the Mexicans did this or said this. Yet how do such persons know that the people that they are referring to are not Guatemalan, Salvadorian, or Brazilian.
I also recall an instance where I found myself reflecting on the ethnicity of two men that I had run across in the past who exhibited interest in me. Both were of the same ethnicity and both I had horrible experiences with. The first one I came across my second year in undergrad and when he came into my life I had recently broken up with someone else. I was still upset about this breakup and so I really was not too interested with getting together with anyone at this point. And yet he was persistent and so we went out a few times and then all of a sudden he stopped calling. As I said, I was not looking for anything with him yet I wondered why the sudden change. I inquired about it and he told me that the reason he stopped calling was because he was upset that I did not call him after our date to make sure that he had gotten home okay. When he told me this, I just about wet my pants with laughter because I could not believe what I was hearing. I have since learned that this is a cultural thing in that it connotes respect, but at the time I thought that he was absolutely crazy. I mean he dropped me back off at my place close to 1AM; what business do I have calling anyone much less a man at that hour of the night?
The second one came along years later and it was clear from the moment that I met him that he was interested in me. Although he did not say anything about that interest at first, it did not take him very long to come out with how he felt and in doing so he asked to go out. I did not see how going out to lunch would do me any harm and so I obliged him. Yet it was a nightmare from hell as he within minutes of our date began to tell me how much he loved me and wanted to marry me, even though I had known the knucklehead all for about a minute. I told him that I was not interested in that type of relationship and kept trying to change the subject in hopes of getting him to talk about something other than his feelings toward me. As much as I tried redirecting him, he too kept trying to pull me back even though I kept emphasizing that I just was not interested in him. (This is perhaps where I flawed; I should not have ever went on that date). Finally the lunch came to a close and he walked me back to my car. After doing so, he leans in for a hug and kisses me right on the cheek after I had already made clear that I had no romantic interest in him whatsoever. I was absolutely disgusted and after calling him to tell him how much I despised his actions, I never spoke with him again.
Years later, for some reason, I found myself thinking about both of these instances and within moments I reasoned that the people from this ethnic group must all be crazy simply because of my less than favorable interactions. I immediately corrected myself, telling myself that if I allowed myself to think that way I would be stereotyping the whole nation that these two unique individuals were from in light of my interactions with them. I thought that this would not be a just act in that I know all too well that two people do not speak for an entire people group.
And yet, this is what we all do when we run into people of a particular background, religion, nationality or color: we allow the actions of a few to dictate to us what the many are like. How many times do we say to ourselves and to others that all Chinese people are like this, or all black men are like this, or all Latinos are like this, or all women, or all Muslims, or all rich people are like this. When we do such not only discount who they are as unique individuals aside from their culture or group, but we also short circuit ourselves, in that we cause ourselves to miss out on immensely valuable relationships with people on account of the stereotypes that we hold against them.
There is something to be said about cultural distinctions, such as language, religion, verbal and nonverbal communication and the like. Of course it is not inappropriate to say that Argentinians speak Spanish or that Nigerians are more collectivist than individualistic or that Japanese practice Buddhism. These are not stereotypes, these are pieces of information that are fact! But even here we must be careful in that even within one culture, there are people who do not fit cultural norms. Again, this emphasizes the need to look at people for who they are as individuals and then judge them on the basis of that, rather than reading into their actions, behaviors and the like on account of where they are from.