Stereotypes, and Why They’re *NOT* Okay (In Two Vignettes)

So, the title of this blog post seems like it should be patently obvious, huh? Despite that, yesterday a fellow author tweeted something along the lines of “there’s nothing wrong with writing a stereotype, and if if you have a problem with them it’s *your* problem.” No one called her on this, and some people even favorited it.

I hate writing reactive blog posts, but ummm…yes, when you are a visible minority, it IS your problem. Is IS your baggage. I could rant about why this tweet was wrong until I’m blue in the face, but instead I thought I’d provide two vignettes from my life:

I.

The year is 2004. I’m a college student in central New Jersey.  I’m still in the process of shedding my debilitating shyness, but I also need money. Working three jobs doesn’t leave much time, so when I see a job listing for a promotional model for a locksmith (yes, I know that’s random as hell), I apply. I get the job, and my first day out in the field I’m sent to the grand opening of a gym.

I approach a man who, in retrospect, looks like the country club asshole from an 80s film. He *acts* like a country club asshole from an 80s film, too.

“Would you like a free cup from {Whatever} Locksmith?” I ask with a smile.

He smiles back.

“Oh, that’s a big cup,” he says congenially. “Does it hold 40 ounces? Is that what you drink your malt liquor from?”

And then he walks away, leaving me standing there stupidly. I’m still holding the cup out and smiling when the implications of his words hit me.

 

II.

The year is 2000. I am in Estonia (yes, I know that’s random as hell), visiting my boyfriend. We are at a cozy bar in Tallinn, sipping mulled wine as we prepare for a night on the town—we’re to meet some of his friends at a club called The Cave. I am probably the only black person in Tallinn at that moment, which is made painfully obvious by the way people stare and whisper. I can’t read lips, but more than once I make out a word that I hope is just my imagination.

As we leave to go to the cave, a large man holds the door for me. He has the build of a villain’s lackey in a romantic suspense. I smile at him and say thanks. He says nothing, until he runs up on me three blocks later.

“Nigger!” he shouts as he punches me in the face the first time. He shouts the same thing as he punches me again, before my boyfriend and his friends swarm and drive him away.

Now, where did Country Club Asshole get the idea that because I was black, I must enjoy chugging Colt-45s? Take a wild guess. Why would a dude in a country that had probably negative numbers of minorities feel that he knew enough about me to warrant punching me in the face? Take a wild guess. Yes, yes, I get that there’s some truth in stereotypes, but to act as if there’s nothing wrong with them, as if they are just benign ideas that have no bearing on the real world…that’s just stupid, full-stop.

 

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4 thoughts on “Stereotypes, and Why They’re *NOT* Okay (In Two Vignettes)

  1. I am completely horrified by your experiences, yet can think of several of my own. I’ve twice had cashiers automatically assume that I was paying for groceries with food stamps, and had that same “are we the only black people here?” feeling while walking the streets of Xian in China with my aunt. Granted, I didn’t expect there to be many, if any, black people living in Xian, but it was still eye-opening and uncomfortable to have people walk up to us and point and stare as if we were museum pieces on display.

    Stereotypes become stereotypes for a reason–there is probably a bit of truth to them. But perpetuating said stereotypes does not help matters, and saying that it’s the stereotyped person’s responsibility to deal with their “baggage” is just a convenient way of letting those who enjoy the privilege of not being stereotyped off the hook. It’s a societal problem; all members of society should do their part to correct it.

    1. Yes, everyone should be working correct to correct this!

      I wrote about the assault because it was a major event in my life, but it’s all the small instances of stereotyping over the years—the ones that seem like small potatoes to others—that build up within a person (whether they are treated badly because of race, gender, or sexual orientation) and cause the most damage.

  2. Yes, writing a stereotype is wrong. Because writing them allows them to live on, to survive, to persist that much more. Yes, writing a stereotype is wrong. Because writing them creates a sense of truth around the words, even when they’re completely false.

    Sometimes, writing a stereotype happens without the writer realizing it. That doesn’t mean everyone should jump all over that writer/speaker/etc and call them a hateful person or a terrible father or whatever (as has happened in the past). BUT that’s still the writer’s *problem.* His/hers to own, his/hers to solve.

    Great post, Alyssa. I’m sorry for what happened to you, but I’m glad you shared those experiences to make a good and really critical point.

    1. Thanks for the thoughtful comment, Audra!

      You’re right: I don’t think the writer is a bad person, or meant to be intentionally hurtful. I just hope people think long and hard before deploying stereotypes.

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