If It Looks Like a Goose....: The Issue of Passive Stereotyping and Accountability
I went to Cornell University to go hiking this past weekend. There is a very nice gorge that sits in the middle of it that is great for exercise and contemplation for me. So as I entered town, college students were all over the place. Guess I forgot this was the week that prefresh’s arrived on campus. Between crazy-ass traffic and students, I found a street that I could park on that was next to a steeply-inclined hill. As I was waiting to turn onto the street, there was a couple that was walking towards the intersection, an Asian man and a White woman. No surprise and no big deal to me.
However the traffic was tight and I had to keep looking both ways every two seconds to find an opening. At one point, I met eyes with girl, who promptly took her boyfriend’s hand that she had not been holding before. Insecure? Maybe. I have been told that I have very intense glance.
Anyhow after I found my spot, I was walking across the campus which was full of students, parents, and visitors using the various coffee houses, stores, and nature paths. On a couple of occasions, I happen to find myself walking behind a couple of women on the few times there wasn't anyone around. On both occasions, they both did a couple of side-glances at me though I was a good ten-feet away.
Now I was irritated.
So lets get the obvious out of the way here: being an adult, Black male, the expectation upon hearing this story is that I am going to pull the race card. That is what American society has devolved into afterall. A bunch of tribes calling ‘wolf’ every time we suspect an outsider of treating us like...outsiders. Black, White, Gay, conservative, liberal...doesn't matter. Everyone is a victim these days. To be fair, that is partially why I am writing this, but not to play the victim.
While its easy to rationalize these women's’ reactions as random or just taking precautions so that I didn't get the wrong idea, and there was no neon sign screaming ‘racism’, my instincts from both situations was one of wondering if I had been one of the many Asian or White males walking around campus, would they have felt the need to be so cautious? There’s no way of answering that without asking them directly, so the rest of this article is written from an idea rooted in conjecture.
It is no secret to any educated society in the world that America has deep-seeded, race issues. I mean most countries do have some sort of problem with prejudice, but ours’ seems to be the loudest and seems to make us the poster boy for the trait. I have heard people refer to these American issues as ‘identity politics’. However most Americans like to think of themselves as free of racism. They are not members of the Klu Klux Klan or burning crosses on lawns afterall, and that’s definitely legit.
There is another facet of racism however that's harder to detect and is more common in north, east, and west states than it is in Southern states. That facet is passive racism. Its a dicey one to take apart because it can easily be defended as not being racist for the fore mentioned reasons, and in some cases that it could just be a mistaken perception on the part of the complainer. However my cousin from New Orleans put it best when discussing the issue with me:
“If I said the word,’gun’ and ‘black man’ together, whats the first thing to cross your mind?”
For me, the answer was cop or soldier, but he said most peoples’ reaction would be that of criminal and it was this kind of institutional racism that was the problem with America. Although I was no stranger to profiling, I was afraid I actually had to agree with him.
Perhaps a better phrasing though would be ‘institutional stereotyping’. I say that simply because they may talk to other people of color with no difficulty at all, but in unfamiliar settings their thinking reverts back to a pre-programmed, defense setting. This setting is designed to highlight potential threats to said person and target those likely candidates as threats.
Another way of looking at it was from an article I was reading on the 2017 movie, Ghost in A Shell. In that piece, the author goes to Japan to get their take on a White woman playing the main character. Americans were going crazy over yet another example of White-washing in Hollywood, so the question was how did the people who were being White-washed take it?
Apparently many of them thought no differently of it and it went back to their perceptions of anime which the movie as based off of. While Westerners look at Anime characters as white people because of their eye and hair color, many Japanese viewers did not. Instead they naturally assumed the characters to be Japanese unless their skin color was blatantly different and they assumed this because that was their default, pre-programmed assumption of characters on TV. There was an unspoken blowback from this insight in that it implied the reverse: that western audiences default settings for their characters as a White person was likewise trained and deeply ingrained in our sub-conscious.
We are all programmed to automatically think a certain way without thought. Make assumptions and judgments based on our society’s standards and behave accordingly. Assuming these women who I was walking behind were acting on a type of passive stereotype, it would have been because they had been conditioned to think that way even from an early age. Its like with martial arts where enough practice and sparring will make a person move as quick and natural as breathing little or no fore-thought. This puts things in perspective for me.
"But I am also holding myself accountable as well because I am just as guilty as those two girls."
When I Cried ‘Wolf’
You see I had done the same thing. In 2010 when standing in line at JFK airport for a flight to France, my gaze fell on a tall man with a long beard and loose-fitting shirts and pants. Mind you he hadn't done anything and was just standing there, but I still automatically zoomed in on this guy as a potential threat to myself. Worse yet, I knew I was doing it and couldn’t stop myself!
So am I playing the race card? Yes.
But I am also holding myself accountable as well because I am just as guilty as those two girls. It’s not a Black vs. White problem, but a societal problem. Despite all our claims about being independent thinkers and not letting others tell us what to do, that's exactly what we are doing every, damn day. And because it comes so naturally to us and were immersed in it, we excuse our behavior as something different or dumb down its significance by comparing it to obvious worse examples.
If we are to actually change anything in our society, much less the world, then it has to start with our individual choices and thoughts. We as a people and a species need to honestly look at ourselves and ask, “Where am I doing something where someone told me that it was the right way to act?”, and why did they tell that narrative. While I am still irritated at the women for their behavior, I’m not going to scream racist or judge them for it. Rather I will recognize their actions in myself and start the change there.
© 2018 Jamal Smith