April 12th, 2011
Stereotypes Exist Because We Let Them

I’m going to be very honest, when I was a kid, stereotypes weren’t as common place as they are in some families, but they weren’t exactly uncommon either.  There was this stereotype that I remember hearing when I was just a very little girl.  I think I was 6 or 7.  Basically, I was told that black folks couldn’t grow their hair.  I remember thinking, “Wow, how is that possible? Everyone’s hair grows.  What could make their hair stop growing?

We just didn’t talk about it

As a young child, I had very few people to ask besides my childhood friends and my parents.  Being the type to speculate about things, I did just that.  I asked around and surprisingly, most people weren’t sure, but some were absolutely certain…that in fact, “Black people can’t grow their hair and if they have long hair, it’s fake.”  I asked many more questions, but there  were surprisingly few answers.  This was the first time that I really began to understand just how deep the separation was between black and white communities.  Unfortunately, there weren’t many places to turn to for answers either because it was something that we just didn’t talk about.  Nobody wanted to be called a racist and so I guess people figured that not talking about it was the way to either keep the truth from getting out or prevent others from accusing them of being racist if they accidentally misspoke.  It wasn’t until several years later that an interracial couple moved into our neighborhood and I had the opportunity to get honest answers and discover the truth: that black hair did, in fact, grow.  Now that’s embarrassing, but even more so…it’s sad.  It’s sad how truly little many of us know about any race or culture outside of our own…and it’s a shame that when questions come out, we feel justified in giving incomplete or utterly false answers. Instead, we should research our claims as we would in any other situation and have enough pride in what we say to at least give factual answers.

Now, let’s turn the tables for a minute.  My husband grew up in the border town of Laredo, Texas for much of his life and when he moved to the north in middle school, he experienced culture shock and racism combined.  As a result, for much of his childhood, he grew up believing that white people really did hate all Mexicans and that they hated black folks too. These observations came from experience first and were then solidified in conversations with family and friends.  As a young child, he experienced racism mostly in school, from white teachers, who would refuse to pronounce his name correctly, immediately assumed he was a trouble maker, and would often respond with negative actions and confrontational demeanors.  Shortly after transferring to high school, he met his first “nice” white teacher.  Her actions opened him up to realizing that it wasn’t being white that made teachers mean, it was something else, prejudice.  This teacher, who he had expected to treat him poorly like all the others, was very respectful to him and his classmates of color.  She took the time to pronounce each of their names according to their preference, worked hard to honor their heritage and discussed the other side of American history and culture without confrontation or negative connotations to races other than her own.  He felt justified in her classroom, he felt like he was heard and ultimately, he realized that all white people aren’t “bad”.

It’s foolish to generalize

My point is to insist that stereotypes (and racism) occur as a product of our segregated communities.  They can sometimes hold a little truth, but often they don’t.  Anytime that we generalize, rather than finding the facts, we become fools…and that happens all too often when we separate ourselves and we begin to see each other as being opposite extremes, when in fact, there is a lot of grey area in between where we are very similar.  It’s a fact that we can not become truly multicultural or embrace diversity without making it a part of our daily lives and spending a lot more time discovering our differences and similarities.  If my parents had been involved in the black community, perhaps I wouldn’t have been so naive. It’s embarrassing to think that a child wouldn’t know the answer to a simple question about hair (of all things), and yet, that is what is occurring right now in much of this country.  Trusted authorities in children’s lives are handing out stereotyped predictions, rather than answers.  In my husband’s case, perhaps if he would have had more exposure to white folks, or met them under different circumstances (without them being in authority over him) he would have been able to see an example of a consideration white person much earlier in his life.

All it takes to discover the truth, is to get involved.  Parents…it starts at home.

Chantilly Patiño writes the blog Bicultural Mom, follow her on Facebook and Twitter @biculturalmom.

[Photo by chelseaachelsea]

3 thoughts on “Stereotypes Exist Because We Let Them

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