I was sitting in the rear car of the subway like I always do going to work one afternoon last fall. The train was pretty empty since it was too early for the evening commute to have begun (not to mention that I was going the opposite direction). In front of me was a relatively large African American man wearing khaki cargo pants, a flat-billed cap, and sunglasses. Even though he had a little girl in the seat next to him, I’m sorry to say, my guard went up a little. It bothers me that I do that, and I feel like I’m constantly reminding myself to think about what I’m thinking.
The man asks the girl, “So, have you picked what you’re gonna be for Halloween?”
The girls responds, “A butterfly.”
The man says, “Are you sure? Last time you said you wanted to be a princess.”
The girl answers, “Well [sister] says I should be a butterfly.”
The man says, “It don’t matter what [sister] thinks. What do YOU want to be?”
The girl says, “A…a princess.”
And the man responds, “Well then, if you want to be a princess, you can be a princess. You’ll always be my princess.”
Why did this situation surprise me? If it had been a white man or an Asian man with his daughter, it wouldn’t have. If it had been an African American woman with her daughter, I doubt it would have either. What about my schema of the interaction between African American men and their daughters says that they can’t have the same type of interactions as fathers (or mothers) and daughters (or sons) as any other race or ethnicity? Why, even though I know this in my head, do I continue to be surprised when a) I observe things that contradict these schemas and b) I realize that I have let these schemas mislead me (again).
Stereotypes are evolutionarily adaptive. They’re merely mental shortcuts that help us survive sudden danger. For example, as a female, I tend to stereotype lone men who may be loitering at night as a potential source of danger. Obviously, the vast majority of them are just regular, harmless folks–perhaps stepping outside to make phone calls, getting some fresh air, or simply waling back to their cars–but my heightened awareness helps protect me from the one bad egg. Problems arise when our mindset changes from awareness to assumption; when we turn a shortcut into a rule. It’s fine that I’m aware that a man hanging around on a street corner at night could pose a threat, but it is not fair assume that because he is a man and alone he must be dangerous. When we start using stereotypes in cause/effect, rather than correlative, reasoning, we tread dangerously–it’s not too difficult to make the leap to prejudice and discrimination, for when we neglect individuality, we forget that we’re dealing with actual people who have feelings and life and emotion and pains and joys, not just amorphous, indistinct groups.
I once saw a Youtube video (for the life of me, I cannot find the video, so if anyone knows who/where it is, please let me know!) featuring a spoken word poet–a young, African American man–who said something to the effect of, “It’s okay to have stereotypes and make judgments–as long as you realize they might be wrong.”