When I was a child growing up black in a middle class neighborhood in Los Angeles, I was exposed to many racial stereotypes, which were delivered via people of all races and backgrounds. I had heard that Jews were good business people, but stingy and cheap; people from the South were mostly “Peckerwoods” and “Crackers;” and white folks were generally not to be trusted. And don’t get me started about what I heard about people who live in trailer parks. (And this was before Muslims become America's favorite terrorist group.)
Let’s face it, Sydney Poitier had been put through hell by white people on film and I was sure these movies were sobering warnings of some kind. And even though I seemed to be insulated from racism and discrimination by living in the more tolerant and even liberal surroundings of L.A. in the late 1960s, I was still told to watch my back by some relatives from the Bay Area who supported the burgeoning Black Panther movement. The fact that I grew up at the pinnacle of the civil rights era only made relying on racial stereotypes even more essential to survival and ongoing clarity when it came to my place in society.
Stereotyping white people aside, one of the most memorable stereotypes I had drilled into me was that Indians ( as we referred to them in the 60s and 70s) were nice, peaceful people, until they started drinking, at which point all hell would break loose and the best thing you could do was to leave whatever area you were in. So, at age 14 I found myself on a seemingly peaceful “Indian reservation.” However, while I was there I carefully scanned for signs of empty beer and whiskey bottles and was on the lookout for staggering Indians in search of more booze. Fortunately, there were no incidents and I returned to my home, unscathed and unharmed. Still, that stereotype stayed with me until adulthood when I came in contact with other Native Americans and was able to research their culture and, specifically, the role alcohol played in their lifestyle and history.
Throughout my teenage years, I was battered by other stereotypes: Mexicans exclusively drove Chevrolets and delivered lots of children like an assembly line; many Italians had ties to organized crime; and Asians were just naturally smart, but humor-less. After all, how many Asian comedians did you see in the 1960s? Much of this information came courtesy of adults and relatives who kept these comments on lockdown until a few cocktails loosened their tongues and fueled them with a sense of empowerment.
My main point is that what we tell our children, what we joke about in casual conversation, what we say in a moment of anger, can leave an indelible impression on young and older people alike. We can literally inject our own narrow-mindedness and racism into their psychological veins. Our kids, for example, can carry these stereotypes with them well into adulthood, and
into their personal and professional lives. Cultural baggage I call it.
And, just because we’re all grown up doesn’t mean we can’t backslide into stereotyping and profiling.
Flash forward to the early 2000s
Several years ago, when I worked for the City of Bellevue Parks Department, I was playing on our Parks softball team and we were playing another team from another department. I remember joking and verbally sparring with some of the opposing team's players and we were all enjoying the competitive but friendly atmosphere on a sunny summer day.
'What a bunch of nice guys,' I thought. But wait, who were these guys, really?
For several minutes I had forgotten that we were playing the officers from the police department. After that reality slowly sunk in, my view of the opposing team began to slowly change, my thoughts growing gray and cloudy like a winter day in Seattle. Suddenly, a series of stereotypes started to seep into my brain. My smile turned upside down, my muscles tensed; my throat became as dry like the Sahara.
'These guys are probably operating on testosterone overload and think they are real macho,’ I thought to myself. 'I wonder if any of them have shot or beaten anyone up lately,' I wondered.
Then, literally, I felt like I stopped breathing. I even felt like slapping my own face! Maybe I should have. How could I, the city's diversity specialist, be blatantly stereotyping and profiling police officers? I suddenly imagined I was wearing the Scarlet “H” on my chest, which meant I was a hypocrite. How could I have become what I hate? At that point in my career, I had spent nearly 10 years instructing and imploring people not to do what I had been guilty of, even if only for a minute.
Indeed, we can all fall into the trap of basing our opinions and viewpoints about people on their profession, skin color, religion, gender, sexual orientation, what neighborhood they live in, even the uniform they wear. Funny, how when people put on a uniform or dress a certain way our thoughts about them start to change. The same man or woman we see at the grocery store puts on a police uniform and then they suddenly become something different in our eyes. One reason for this is that we are trained to respect and acknowledge authority, and authority figures often wear uniforms. Several times in my life people were surprised to find that I was a black man, after initially meeting me via a phone conversation. I could see the surprise light up their eyes and could hear their voice take on a different tone.
Our professions, race, religion, life experiences all play a role in shaping who we are as individuals. That should not be ignored, but rather it should be honored and even appreciated. But when you strip away all of the adjectives, you'll find often we are a lot more similar than different.
So whenever you can, take the opportunity to meet and get to know people as people, not symbols, or stereotypes that have been kept alive since childhood. I like to call stereotypes the silent killer of relationships.