I used to teach a night class at the local college about the history of social welfare in America. One of the evenings was devoted to Social Justice and Discrimination. We discussed prejudice and stereotypes. Students seemed to think that while negative stereotypes were evil, positive stereotypes were a good thing.
Jews are smart.
Black people are great musicians and athletes.
Asians are math geniuses (even though they are abysmal drivers.)
One young, black student, about 6 feet 7 inches, raised his hand and said, “I hate those positive stereotypes. Every time someone meets me they say ‘You must be great at basketball.’ I suck at basketball. I’m a poet. These people don’t care who I really am.”
It’s worse when people who share your race or ethnicity hold these damaging stereotypes.
When I was at college, lots of my friends were Jews from boroughs of New York City – the Bronx, Brooklyn, and Queens. I, along with others, was from Long Island.
“Oh, you’re one of those rich, Jewish American Princesses,” they would say disparagingly. They would use the offensive acronym JAP, which connotes a pampered brat, raised in a wealthy home, who is materialistic and selfish.
I wasn’t deprived, but I grew up in a modest, middle class home in a middle class neighborhood. We ate the supermarket’s brand of bread because Wonder bread was too expensive. We wore clothes from the local discount store. We went on a vacation one weekend a year to a hotel in the Catskill mountains, a 3 hour drive away. My mother cut our hair herself, and we didn’t own a color TV until I’d graduated from college. (I’m not that old. Everyone else had one.)
I was hardly pampered or wealthy, but my city friends didn’t believe it. I lived in a house, and they lived in an apartment. It hurt to be judged by a stereotype.
I hear another asinine stereotype when I mention that my daughter-in-law is Japanese.
“Ahhh,” they rhapsodize. “Japanese women are so beautiful. Your son and his wife will have gorgeous mixed-race children.”
Aside from the offensive notion that the most important thing in a person is physical beauty, the comment is ludicrous.
It’s true that my daughter-in-law is very beautiful. Tall, slender, with shining eyes and a dazzling smile, she looks like a model (and is as good-hearted as she is lovely).
But I’ve been to Japan. All Japanese women are not beautiful. They come in all varieties. Physical beauty is as special there as it is here, among white or black, or any other color person.
I told my daughter-in-law about this Japanese beauty stereotype. She said, “In Japan, everyone thinks that all white women are beautiful.”
We had a good laugh over that one.
While I wish it were true that all Jews from Long Island are smart, educated and rich, I also wish that people would think twice about prejudging someone by stereotypes. Negative or positive, a stereotype makes you blind to the individual right before your eyes.
Have you ever judged, or been judged, by a stereotype?