I remember a college professor who told us about a convention he had gone to. They sat six teachers at each table. In the center of the table were sheets of stick on labels. Everyone was asked to write words that described them – their religions, their sexuality, the hobby they most identified with, their marital status – maybe some other things. Then, they tucked the labels away throughout the morning session, while they did ice breakers and had small group activities to learn more about being educators. After lunch, though, they were asked to put their labels on.
A couple very interesting things happened. One – it became clear that every table was full of all sorts of people! Christians were sitting next to bisexuals who were sitting next to farmers. And it was all okay. All of these people had gathered as educators, but that was only one label they could claim. Getting down to it, they were all unique and interesting in their own right…and maybe had something to learn from each other. Two – stereotypes were toppled. Even my professor, who was a man I found to be most inclusive and accepting of others, admitted that he was surprised by people’s labels. He “wouldn’t have guessed” based on their answers or behaviors in the morning session. Which raised a few questions.
Why do we try to guess what boxes others are in? Why do we try to put everyone into boxes? Are labels a good thing? A necessary thing?
We had a great conversation in class that day. And I find myself having more and more conversations about the same sort of questions still today.
The other day a friend told me her mother was Southern Baptist but encouraged her interest in learning about other faiths. My comment was to tell her how lucky she was since, “Southern Baptist and encouraging don’t always go together.” Even as I typed the words I could clearly see the stereotype I had and that I was placing this woman’s mother, whom I’ve never met, into a box for no reason. It bugged me.
The same day I was talking with other friends about a woman I’d overheard make a comment about homeschooling that was based on stereotypes. I was annoyed with her, but after a bit realized that I had some of the same beliefs until I learned more about homeschooling. Now I’m all about educating everyone and dispelling all the falsehoods – probably because we homeschool.
And I think these myths, falsehoods, stereotypes, whatever you want to call them, go bigger too! These questions apply to race – one of the big topics of today. They apply to military life, to political views, to everything. I’ve heard people lump people into groups of all sorts, and I’ve done it myself. The thing is, sometimes the labels are true.
My son asked me one day if it was racist to say that his Asian friend is good at ping pong. “And not just good, Mama. He’s really good.” I told him it’s not unless you’re implying that the reason he’s good, really good, is because he’s Asian. But to simply say your friend is really good at ping pong and that he happens to be of Asian descent – not racist. Some people are good at ping pong. Some people are Asian. And sometimes those two labels overlap.
Guess what else? Some Southern Baptists are strict and discourage anything but faith in their religion. Some homeschooled kids are awkward. Some people with black skin are bad eggs. Some police officers are bad eggs too. Some men are sexist. Some women are bitches. Some jocks are dumb. Some white men can’t jump. Some maids are Latina. Some old people smell funny. Some Americans are fat. Some fat people are lazy. Some skinny people have eating disorders. Some teenagers are trouble-makers. Some. Some. Some.
See where I’m going here? Some does not imply all. Let’s say it again.
Some does not imply all.
Stereotypes exist because sometimes they’re facts and somebody decided that sometimes facts are enough to apply to an entire grouping of people. But they don’t. And if not all of any particular group can be classified by a stereotype, maybe it’s time to let that stereotype go and get to know the exceptions to what you might have thought was the rule.
Every so often, like that day in college and the day last week, I realize a belief I hold that’s based on ‘some.’ When I do, I try to educate myself and learn more about the group I don’t know so much about. I think about the labels I would apply to myself and what others might and do think about me, or would if they knew. And that causes me to give people a chance.
After all, since there are all kinds in every group, don’t you think the only label that really matters is PERSON? I mean, unless and until someone proves themselves deserving of their stereotypes?