Tuesday, February 16, 2010

When is it a stereotype and when is it just you?

written by guest contributor Jennifer; originally published at Mixed Race America

Let me first begin by saying that I am not on the payroll of Doubleday and Colson Whitehead's agent is not paying me to plug any of his works on this blog. But I have just finished reading his latest novel Sag Harbor, and if I weren't convinced that he was one of the most brilliant contemporary voices in American letters, this novel would clinch it. [Tami's note: this book is in my Kindle queue to read. with this endorsement, I've moving it up.]

But this isn't going to be a book review (although one will be coming). I introduce his latest novel because I want to quote from a long paragraph since it really got me thinking about stereotypes--about how we learn stereotypes, how they get perpetuated, how we try to resist and defy them, and what we do when we find ourselves paradoxically in a situation where we know our actions or clothing or speech may be perpetuating stereotypes yet none-the-less we are being authentically ourselves.

So to set the scene, Whitehead's fifteen-year-old protagonist, Benji, is musing about things that one absolutely did not do if one is black because there are certain stereotypes that you are never, EVER to perpetuate:
"You didn't, for example, walk down Main Street with a watermelon under your arm. Even if you had a pretty good reason. Like, you were going to a potluck and each person had to bring an item and your item just happened to be a watermelon, luck of the draw, and you wrote this on a sign so everyone would understand the context, and as you walked down Main Street you held the sign in one hand and the explained watermelon in the other, all casual, perhaps nodding between the watermelon and the sign for extra emphasis if you made eye contact. This would not happen. We were on display. You'd add cover purchases, as if you were buying hemorrhoid cream or something, throw some apples in the basket, a carton of milk, butter, some fucking saltines, and all smiles at the register." (Whitehead 88)
[Aside: I know I will be accused of being either naive or disingenuous, but I didn't get the whole stereotype of African Americans and watermelon until I had graduated from college and was working as an Assistant Resident Director at UCSB. But I must admit that it was only while doing RA and ARD training that I started to learn a lot about ethnic and racial stereotypes that had somehow never blipped across my radar to pierce my consciousness. In hindsight I can see how they all played out in cartoons--you know those racist Loony Tune cartoons (I still vividly remember one of Tojo and WWII and Bugs Bunny and a Liberty garden) but somehow I never made the connection between pop culture and real people in a conscious way until I hit college. Or maybe it was there all along and I was repressing it, who knows]

Whitehead's passage reminds me of a story that my friend "M" told me. "M" is African American and this exact scenario happened to him--he was headed to a bbq, asked to pick up watermelon, and while walking from the supermarket to his car encountered a black friend who pointed at the watermelon, and they both laughed.

So it got me thinking. I mean, "M" likes watermelon. Is he supposed to not buy watermelon or get a non-black friend to buy watermelon for him because he doesn't want to be perpetuating stereotypes? I sometimes think of these things, especially when I find myself either in Chinatown or during my one trip to Hong Kong. There are these beautiful dresses, cheongsam, and I thought of buying one. But then I thought, when would I wear it?

So I have never bought one, although I'd like to. I just can't envision a place where I'd feel comfortable wearing it. It's a special-occasion type dress, evening wear. When I first got married (and I mean my first marriage not my impending one), I contemplated changing into one after the ceremony, a typical move that Chinese/Chinese American brides often make--wearing a Western gown for one portion and a traditional gown for another part of the wedding. But honestly, now, especially in the South, would I really wear this to the English Department holiday party? Wouldn't I just be wearing a sign saying, "My name Suzy Wong. I good girl" (is everyone old enough to get that reference? It's a PG reference, I figure you can use your imaginations to imagine other versions).

Anyway, I'm wondering, dear readers, if there are any things you avoid that you genuinely like to do in order NOT to feel like you are perpetuating a certain stereotype about your ethnic or racial group. And most especially, I'm wondering, are there things that white Americans avoid because they don't want to be stereotyped as...white Americans? Would a middle-aged white American man avoid buying a maserati even if he wanted one because he didn't want to be a walking cliche? I suppose I could say I avoid wearing tweed jackets with leather patches on the elbows, but the thing is, I'm so NOT what one has in mind when you are asked to envision a college English professor that I think me wearing this outfit would be seen as ironic rather than stereotypical.


Sidney said...

Tipping. When I leave a small tip I also include a note explaining WHY. (We all know, Black people are horrible tippers.) Just yesterday I had to explain to a friend when I eat upscale restaurants there's an assumption that I will get better service. Sometimes I feel I have to work harder to validate my dissatisfaction (to myself AND the crappy server). In fact, most of my angst came because I felt I was embodying the stereotype.

A said...

This will probably mark me, but I've been playing games on Facebook, most notably Farmville. I was impressed that I could customize my avatar to reflect my black heritage and I have been farming away. Recently they introduced "mastery" levels on their crops and so everyone is busying sowing away trying to attain all three levels of mastery and get the crop sign to proudly post on their farm ( we're all so pavlovian!). I was trying to be logical and orderly about it so I woked my way through level 1 on all my crops but its hard to hit it on the mark so I was well on my way to level II on some crops. I decided to stop being so rigid and just start picking the low hanging fruit as I worked through level II. I forgot that I had expanded my farm dramatically and wouldn't you know it - I overshot and earned my very first crop sign by mistake on.....wiat for it..... (sigh) Watermelon.
I must have debated all week on whether to post the danggum crop sign. I finally posted it this weekend after deciding I would defriend the first person to dare make any kind of comment. Three days have gone by and not a word so I guess I worried for nothing but dang did I expend a LOT of energy stressing about such a seemingly stupid little trivial thing. But I feel foolish with just that one crop sign and am frantically trying to earn another just to have something else displayed...you know, just because.

Lyonside said...

In high school and college, I'd take great pains to make sure people knew that I had ACADEMIC scholarships. I was deeply offended when for whatever reason I was named an "Outstanding Negro Scholar" based on PSAT scores, and noone could tell me if that meant I scored the same as my white peers who were named scholars as well. We all got the same prize money ($1000 scholarship), but noone could tell me that the scores were the same. My mom even called Princeton Review on my behalf and got runarounds and non-answers.

And I know intellectually that there's nothing WRONG with a scholarship or prize that's based on ethnic origin, just like there's not a problem w/ ones for children of firefighters or pipefitters or teachers, etc. I mean, you still need ot have good marks and recommendations and the ability to write an essay, and God knows you still need to keep your grades up once you get into that school with that scholarship.

But the stigma, the idea that every white person and some non-white person would think that I was only there based on my color grated. I know most peers couldn't have cared less, and in college even less so. If either high school or college had been more diverse I think I would have gotten over myself quicker. But when you're the "only one," it's easy to obsess.

Kelly Hogaboom said...

Good article. I also liked Dr. Pilgrim's discussion on the watermelon subject and the relation to making sure not to do something or other that seemed too "black".

As a white woman I am sometimes embarrassed to be suddenly called out by some white thing I'm doing. I was recently at a concert (Fleet Foxes in Portland) and noticed it was about a thousand percent white. Not only was it white, but people were almost in uniform, they were dressed so alike.

Another example: the blogs "stuff white people do" and "stuff white people like". The former has some good material to read IMO, but for instance I remember for months I had been unrestrained in enjoying my family biking when I read the bicycle entry at SWPL, which includes the following:

White women have a lot of fantasies about idealized lives, and one of them is living in Europe and riding around an old city on one of these bikes. They dream about waking up and riding to a little cafe, then visiting bakeries and cheese shops and finally riding home to prepare a fancy meal for their friends who will all eat under a canopy with white Christmas lights. This information can be used to help gain the trust/admiration of a white woman, especially if you can pull off a lie about how your mother told you about how she used to do all of these things when she was younger.

And of course, it goes without saying that white people who ride bikes like to talk about how they are saving the earth. If you know a person who rides to work, you should take them aside and say “Hey, thanks. Sincerely, The Earth.” Then give a thumbs up. That white person will ride home on a cloud.

Hell, that stung. I mean I don't fit that trope to a T, but enough for it to be ouchy, and to instantly make me feel foolish about loving my bike so much.

I don't know what to make of it when I read or hear this stuff. The very first thing I think of is how privileged I am. I mean I don't have a $4000 Euro bike or whatever, but I do stay home and get to live my day. I don't talk about saving the Earth all the time, but I do care about making choices that are gentle ones on the planet. Passages like this may make me think about my privilege (which is good, I think), but often I feel foolish as well, and like I should disguise my genuine preferences and appear more sophisticated. I find myself wondering how many of my white choices mark me an a--hole.

I feel a bit vulnerable admitting all these feelings, but you did ask.

Renee said...

This post actually makes me think of my best friend. One day he called me frantically from the grocery store because both chicken and watermelon were on sale and he didn't know what to do. He felt as though if he went through the cashier with those items that he would affirming all of the stereotypes that go with being Black. I laughed and told him that as long as he was not also purchasing liquor that he should be fine. Much to my shock he bought the chicken and went back a few hours later for the watermelon. When we are out together even if he likes a chicken dish he will never order it. I used to think he was ridiculous until I realized that I have been envious of women with huge afros for some time now but I cannot work up the courage to grow one. Why I am struggling I don't know but there is definitely something there. Perhaps I am scared that people will think that I am too radical because that is what is most associated with afros. I know that I had no fear when I wore dreadlocks but something about afros makes me think about the perception of others.

CronusKiller said...

*sigh chuckle*

On two (not one but two) occasions when I took my boyfriend (wm) to a family cookout (one casual-ish, one family reunion) there was watermelon as the after dinner fruit. I was surprised at how mortified I was.

You guys don't know! My ENTIRE LIFE I did not have watermelon at a family cookout! Never!! It was cantaloupe if there was anything at all!! The second one was fancy and catered at ish and it STILL (STILL) had watermelon slices for dessert!

I'm becoming suspicious if they were trying to test him or something because that was a weird and timely behavior to start.

Moi said...


I have a lot of African clothing. The material is great, it's roomy, it flatters my complexion, and duh, it's perfect summer wear.

Problem is, if I wear African clothing, I get asked "questions."

And the fact that I'm an African (granted, US-born, but that's another rant) wearing African clothing doesn't bother me in the least. People staring doesn't bother me. People feeling the need to stop me and whatever I'm doing so I can answer their meaningless, stereotypical questions, on the other hand, is annoying as fuck.

I've got shit to do. Stop talking to me.

WTF do you need to know anyway? It's clothing. Exactly what do you really need to know about African clothing that you can't find out on the goddamn internet? Oh, you wanted to know my identity and ethnic origin? WTF business is that of yours? Oh, you just wanted to tell me I'm cute? I already know I'm cute...thank you for your unnecessary approval and validation, goddamn it--stop bothering me.

Sassy J said...

This was a good one! It made me chuckle and it made me think.

@Kelly- Fleet Foxes????? New one on me! But I hear what you're saying. Many times I scan the crowd for a chocolate or butterscotch chip in said crowd and wonder why they're not there???

Ok, watermelon? If I've never seen the white folks hawk watermelon at Whole Foods during the summertime, I don't know what is!!! It's a shame that watermelon is so negatively associated with black people, yet, with white folks it's eating healthy.

One thing I'm guilty of doing is changing my music when in "mixed company". I'll turn my radio down when I pull up to a traffic light or change it to a 'more refined' like classical or light rock. Not that I don't like those types of genres, because I do, but I feel guilty to grooving to an R&B or neo-soul song. I remember this one instance where I was pulling into a Joann's Fabric's next to an older white man. It was a nice spring day, so I had my windows down. Hillsong (Christian contemp group) was jamming out of my speakers). Mind you, I was driving my grandfather's 97 Lincoln so with the sound fading, I had to turn it up extra loud. As I was getting out the car, the man said 'that's some really good music, but maybe you shouldn't play it so loud'. I was offended, yeah, but to this day, I wondered what that was all about???

A_Gallivant said...

Well maybe I have a reverse stereotype thing or I am one of those black chicks who like to travel to Europe not Africa stereotype, because I totally have Kelly's fantasy outlined in paragraph One. All I know is that i'm eternally grateful about getting older because it makes it that much easier to no longer have to pretend that I like certain things because I'm black, namely hip hop music, certain tv shows, or any other crazy thing I was told to like in high school. It was a nightmare! I am apparently the totally stereotypical "oreo" but nowadays I've resigned myself to being happy with what I like, stereotypes be damned. It's just too darn exhausting wondering which rule I am breaking or failing to uphold.

Laura(southernxyl) said...

From Kelly's comment:

This information can be used to help gain the trust/admiration of a white woman, especially if you can pull off a lie...

I guess I'm glad I don't frequent that site. It's not right to single out a group of people identified by sex and skin color, and explain how to lie to them to gain their trust and their admiration. That's a crappy thing to do to anybody, regardless of any group they belong to. Ibedanged if I'd let anything that person said "sting" me.

Groups I belong to that I may be stereotyped by: Female, white, middle-aged (49 yrs), southern-accented, college-educated, Christian, and female-but-not-hot, which the way some people talk means I'm subhuman. There are some stereotypes that bother me - some people think a southern accent means stupid and uneducated, for instance - but I gotta be me. I did take the indications of age off of my resume - I took off the year I graduated from college, and the first few years of my work experience even though it was in my field. You can't necessarily tell how old I am by looking; I think I look my age, but sometimes people express surpise when they find out. Age discrimination is a real thing, and it's weird, because unlike every other discriminated-against attribute, age is something that happens to absolutely everyone who doesn't die first. But I don't want anyone to assume that I'm afraid of technology, or slow to accept change, or not hip, or whatever.

Anonymous said...

I am ever so conscious about how I speak. I detest the whole, "speaks so articulate" for a negro, grrr! I am a college lecturer, and teach at colleges that are predominately white, with hispanic and asian students. I rarely use slang, but have used it to 'connect' with my young student population, and every now and then, I want to use some of 'my' ebonic 'ism's, and am always torn when I do. I 'speak' fluent standard english' as well ebonics, and utilize both when I am among my black family and friends; when I am in all white environments, or environments with few to no blacks, I hate to have to decide if I will not use any of my ebonic influenced colloquilisms, because heaven forbid if I am not perceived as an articulate and well spoken negro lol!. Oyan

PoliBohoGlam said...

@ Sidney - co-sign on the tipping issue. I almost always end up tipping just past 20% becaus I don't want to be the black table that tipped poorly (which sucks becuase I'm likely to get horrid service at the onset because I'm at the black table that's expected to tip poorly).

Also, I'm a black woman with unstraightened, natural hair.

When conversations come up and there are racial elements missing in the flow of discussion, I sometimes wait and ponder whether I want to be seen as the "radical, racial, black woman" when I'm really just participating in the converstaion. As an activist and community organizer, it can be difficult to fully discuss any issue without mentioning race, but I wonder how often people chalk those statements up to "playing the race card". It's like, you don't get to talk about racial bias or privilage at all. Never. No more. Done.

Michelle said...

As a person of size, I often avoid eating anything that could possibly be deemed bad for me outside of my home, unless I am in some company I really trust.

I think a huge stereotype of fat people is they eat and eat and eat and nothing else, and I suppose I'm terrified people will think that of me, so I only snack on crappy foods in the house :P

Cindy said...

I'll chime in on the gay front. I am definitely conscious of wearing things that are considered the Lesbian Uniform...Dr. Martins, jeans and a t-shirt. Since my hair is very short and have an athletic build, I think I try to balance this with softening up my clothing most of the time. It really is only a concern when I'm dressing very casually and admit to doing the "dyke check" in the mirror. Sometimes I'm okay with the uniform, but most of the time I'll tone it down.

Aiyo said...

Me so much of the Dave Chappelle race pixie sketch and how you avoid doing something because you don’t want to perpetuate the stereotype. When I 12 a boy through a bottle of water that had spit and mud in it on me and I like any other normal person switched and tried to kill him but ended up denting a van when my punch missed and cracking his rib. But because of this incident I was labelled as the black girl who could just pop off at any moment when in actuality I am really shy very quiet had a throat problem so it hurt to talk at time and bottle a lot of stuff in. Well because of this I became a bit of a push over and letting a lot of things slide and of course my facial expression appeared that I was angry and not tired so I taught myself to appear void of any type emotion when in the company of people I did not know and did not trust. I can even remember another black girl asking why am I so quiet? I am black after all.

Now I am being me a lot more, the shy often quiet sometimes loud, geeky goofy awkward self. LOL

I sometimes avoid doin things like buying a food when I am by myself but if I am with someone else then it makes it a little bit better.

I was on a class trip and were in a cafeteria with many other different schools and our school was the most racially diverese compared to the rest we were eating chicken or trying to with a knife and fork (it's the way how they prepared it made it tricky so yeah)but it was not happening so we were like "fuck it!" and ate with our hands like normal people LOL it was funny becasue on this class trip we were the only black girl there and these white girls from another school started staring at us and my friend shouted ."Can I help you? Stop staring you ugly fools!" bless her she may be perpetuating the sterotypical attitiude having black girl or mixed raced black girl but she doesn't care it's rude to stare at people and she let them know it.

Mary said...

I can't think of an experience where I've ever refraining from doing something because it's a stereotypically white thing, or a stereotypically white-woman thing, but I think that right there says something about the nature of stereotyping in America. African-Americans have stereotypes that are laid on them as a whole group...so do Asian-Americans, so do Latinos. Whites don't. White subgroups do: educated upper-middle-class white women, for example, or blue-collar rust-belt Italian-American men. They're still stereotypes and they still suck...but I think allowing a certain "diversity of stereotypes" (messed up as that idea is) shows a willingness to grant a more complete humanity to whites than to people of color.


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