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Tuesday, January 4, 2011

Boxes

It was recently brought to my attention that in my attempt to be funny, I stereotyped a group of people.
Oh... that was so not what I wanted to hear!  My knee jerk reaction was to defend myself.
I didn't.
I couldn't.  I'm a mama to an interracial family, with kiddos that are stereotyped, after all.  And that kinda makes me immune to such blunders, right?
Wrong.
But seeing as how I was all alone in Costco and had absolutely NOone to defend myself to without appearing loony to complete strangers, I couldn't defend myself at that moment.

Now let's consider for a moment, my reaction to others who stereotype.  If for anything, to see the hypocricy of it all.
At that some moment, if someone would have said to me, even in jest, that Asians are bad drivers.  Or even that Asians are very good at math and can play the piano very well, you better believe the hackles on the back of my neck would have stood up!  My mama bear would have been in defensive mode.  I'm primed to be on the lookout and defend and protect my cubs.  But this time, I was the one stereotyping a group.  Never you mind that it was a group of people that I identified with.  I did it, and it completely escaped me.

Then someone pointed it out.
My fragile psyche was knocked down a couple pegs!  And rightly so.

So I got to stew in it... which is also not very fun.
And as often happens, with time I came to the realization, that I absolutely did stereotype.
The shame.  It was true and it stung.  I did it.  I stereotyped.
So maybe now your thinking, What's the harm in stereotyping?  Most Asians are good at math.  And they really can be good piano players.  


Sterotypes, as defined in Wikipedia are the standardized and simplified conceptions of groups based on some prior assumptions.


So here's where stereotyping is a slippery slope.  Sterotypes, whether they bring about positive or negative connotations, put people in boxes.  Tight little confining boxes.
Mexicans love loud music.
Asians are good a math.
Irish drink a lot.
Native Americans are wise and spiritual.
Soccer moms watch soap operas.
African Americans are good at sports.
Asian women are exotic.
Jews are parsimonious.
Gays like antiques.

And once we categorize folks into these little compartments there is instantly Us and Them.  I'm in this box, and you're in that box.  You're them, and you're not in my box.   I'm part of us, and you're part of them.  And suddenly it's not we anymore.  Just us.  And them.  And they are over there.  Not us.  They are not part of we.  They are just them.

And when they are over there and we are over here, there becomes an environment fertile for prejudice and doubt and fear and limits.  Suddenly we have created an environment where all sorts of things can happen to them.  Their potential, whoever they are in this case, is limited, and those under the scrutiny of stereotypes may also find themselves in a self-fulfilling prophecy.
And us?  We may justify our reactions and our prejudices and our behaviors towards them all the more with an unwillingness to think outside our box because after all, why should we.  Everyone inside our box thinks the same thing about them anyway!

Now being a Caucasian American, I'm provided countless opportunities, and actually encouraged to get out of my box.  To think outside and indeed to step outside the box.  But them?  They are encourage to stay in their prescribed box.

The boxes inherently limit those in it.  Sometime, even for me, getting out of the box can be tough.  I cannot imagine how difficult thinking outside the box is for a person of color or minority, much less stepping outside the box!


This is my them.
As a mama, I don't want them to ever be confined or defined by stereotypes.
Maybe it's inevitable.
But you better believe that I'm gonna fight like h*ll to provide them with the tools so they can cut themselves out.
Anonymous asked over there on the right side bar,
(There's a little Q&A over there on the right-hand side, and I'm going to work my way through the questions.)
Can you tell us some of the insensitive remarks made by strangers regarding the babes' race?
Honestly, none that I can think of.  Thankfully!  But there have been many instances of curious folks who just didn't think before asking.  (I'm pretty guilty of that myself.  See aforementioned story where I stuck my foot in my mouth.)  Like when someone asked if we have trouble finding enough Vietnamese food for them to eat.  Or the folks, knowing they were adopted as infants, that want how much Vietnamese they speak.  That one happens pretty frequently.   
And there are people who stereotype my sweet things with positive images too.  Moments after we went through customs coming home from VietNam, a sweet older lady commented, "Well they are going to be great piano players.  All the Asians are, you know!"  And we've of course had our fair share of comments regarding how smart they surely are.   I agree. Tess and Jude are brilliant!  But not because they're Asian.  Because amazingly God has blessed us with 6 genius children who are all surely going to be Nobel Peace Prize winners and/or members of Mensa.  
Even though we haven't experienced negative stereotyping, it's my obligation to be prepared for it and to equip my children with the tools to deal with it.   This is a job I take seriously, although I will admit that I'm often daunted by the task.
I know I have a few readers out there who are from the Asian community.  And I be tickled pink if you'd share with me what hurdles you've had to overcome re stereotyping and prejudices.  If only so I can better parent our gorgeous brilliant talented Asian beauties and be aware of the boxes they might encounter someday.   Hopefully it will help me find the right box cutter to give them. 
Feel free to email me. 

7 comments:

  1. I am white. My husband is Chinese. Our three children are biracial. neither of us wear wedding rings and we are both young who look even younger. Imagine the looks we get. Some whisper as we walk by. Most don't approach when we are all together except some who speak Chinese will go talk to my husband in chinese and ask if I am really his wife and those are his kids.

    When I am alone though, I get the questions. Are they adopted? What are they? Is there dad... um.. err.. ya know.... is he from.... where is from...er I mean... he is different right? Not white right? what is he? Am I the babysitter/daycare provider? Surely my husband must be great at karate and must be teaching our son (not). Surely they are super smart because they are Chinese.

    I just smile and brag about how much I love my children and how special they are. my olest is 10 and just this year, in 5th grade, I noticed some kids asking him about his this kind of stuff. The look of surprise when the teacher first meets me (somehow my child always beats me to meeting the teacher first) always shocks me but they quickly compose themselves and move on.

    I ramble. Sorry. All to say, you are not alone. I think it is human nature to sterotype. I think some do it without realizing it and they mean no harm at all. My husband makes jokes about sterotyping asians sometimes because it is what got him through all the teasing he endured growing up. It was way worse when he was a kid who could not speak English trying to make it in school.

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  2. On New years eve I think every word out of my mouth was a sterotype when talking to my Chinese Friend! Like saying I was a good Chinese mom by forcing my daughter to attend chinese school every saturday morning against her will. Thank goodness for forgiving friends like mine was that evening *sigh* One sterotype that is true though: AP moms are not firing on all 'cylinders' (-:

    ~Roberta

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  3. I have been thinking about this recently because it seems really easy (at least for me) to confuse culture with stereotyping. Books tell me to introduce other cultures to my family, but when I try to do it my ideas of culture seem to be based mostly on stereotypes--partly because some stereotypes do come from observable actions of a specific ethnic group and partly because I'm pretty clueless. The imagery of stereotypes putting people in a box and giving your children tools to break out of that box (whether the box is a good or bad thing) is beautiful and helps clarify things a little bit for me, but I still have so far to go.

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  4. Nancy, your blog never fails to make me think and reflect, and usually smile, and for that I am very grateful. I have stereotyped in the past, and probably will in the future,unintentionally. I believe it is partly human nature to stereotype, and most people mean no harm by it, but it is important for people to realise how stereotyping can hurt those being stereotyped, so thank you for chooseing to discuss this topic! Gorgeous photos also :-)

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  5. Nancy -- want to tweak this a bit to post on WAGI. It's definitely something we should be thinking about...
    Kelly

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  6. My family's Vietnamese. Our old neighors were Caucasian (might have been from the south) and gave us a hard time throughout our entire duration there. The wife would come home drunk, wander around her backyard, and rant loudly about how we were Vietnamese geese and other insults. They also parked their car on what was legally our property. We were all right with it, but when we needed it and asked them POLITELY to please move it, they answered with such things as "F*** you," "go back to your country," and "you better watch your back."

    When my mom fought back, they spoke over her and mocked her broken English. And Mom replied, "My English isn't good, but at least I can speak two languages." WOOHOO! The amazing thing is that after two years, the husband finally came to respect my mom and apologized. We moved out soon after, so we don't know how long that would have lasted. Proof that understanding your self-worth and fighting, fighting, fighting can soften a cold heart. (sometimes)

    Another one I remember: We were at a Vietnamese supermarket, and a Vietnamese lady and her Caucasian husband approached the line. The Vietnamese cashier saw them, saw that they only had one item and told them to come to the front of the line. My mom protested that the cashier had no right to do that. Even if it was only one item, she had to ask for permission from the others in line in front of them.

    This worship-of-whites happens often in our Vietnamese community (we live in Little Saigon in Orang County, California). So it was clear the cashier called up the man because of his race. But really, what is that doing for the Vietnamese image? That the Vietnamese are inferior and must allow a Caucasian man to check out before them? The cashier's intents backfired...

    That's all I remember for now!

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  7. You are truly a beautiful young women and Mommy.

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