On Stereotypes

The fourth grade is studying stereotypes. The teacher writes it on the board, the definition. An overly general description of a group of people that does not describe all of the people. As a class, they brainstorm a few that they’ve heard. Boys are better at sports than girls. Teachers never watch TV. Finn listens with more attention than we’re used to him displaying, makes his own long list without protesting the amount of handwriting involved. It’s idiosyncratic, but shows a grasp of the point. Boys love blue and tacos. Girls are weak. Every other item has to do with estoteric groups that I never knew existed—mainframe computer operators are all rich and wear glasses, everyone hates a piece of software I’ve never heard of. He is indignant about the biases against mainframe operators—“they aren’t ALL mean. I’m not mean.” As I realize that he’s identified himself with a group, I am thinking about the membership I ascribe most to him– the stereotype I most worry will be applied to him. Especially in the wake of the Sandy Hook tragedy, I think of my kids and the way they’re perceived. People with Asperger’s are cold and unfeeling. Socially weird kids are probably a threat.

After school, we have the last of a five-part staff development series on unconscious bias—grappling, as individuals and as a staff, with the prejudices our cultures and subcultures have socialized into us. People share stories of almost unutterable pain. The African American woman who says, in a diversity training led by a white woman,that she herself used to lead such trainings. “I realized”, she says, “that it went better when it wasn’t me leading it, because people couldn’t stop relating to my skin color. They would either feel defensive, or apologize too much.” The white woman, relating the moment when she realized both her parents were racists. The white man courting his Chinese bride-to-be, entering for the first time a room of people who looked like her instead of him, realizing that this rare experience was someone else’s every-single-day. We take a quiz on heterosexuality, where all the arguments lobbied against queer folks get applied as sharp questions about when you knew you were straight and whether you might be able, please, to change it, or at the very least not flaunt it by holding hands in public with your wife. And then, later, we read something incredibly painful and personal—a letter from the parent of a child of color at our own school, who has noticed that teachers praise him for his basketball prowess but don’t seem to believe that he did his own work for the science fair. Everything came to a head for her last week, when her child’s name was erroneously left off a list of participants: “to some, an oversight of affirmation in a class newsletter may appear to be an insignificant mistake…However, I assure you that such an oversight is far from insignificant from the lens through which I process the situation.”

The lens through which we process. There is so very much within that phrase. Like Finn, I cannot help but see the world filtered by what’s interesting to me—cannot help but speak with more or less confidence depending on what I understand. My past experiences shape how I approach every new experience I have, and there are generalizations I’ve made about groups of people that play out, if unchallenged, in unhelpful ways. How can we move away from our own biases? How can we use what is unique about each of us in the service of connecting to one another’s humanity? And the reality, evident to anyone who does the hard work of truly unpacking bias, that our country and our world are built on a foundation laid over centuries of inequity—when we look at the way that echoes, even now, how do we give anger and grief the space they deserve, while not ultimately staying in mad, grieving places?

I walk, after the training, out to my car past the mural on the cafeteria. Reading again the quote at the bottom. “We work for children because children know how to love, because children are the hope of the future.” I think of the students who will show up tomorrow, to one of the most genuinely diverse schools in my city. All the complexities and miracles that make up each of them, the boxes they check and the boxes they explode. The way they all, more or less, get along with each other.

We need to do right by these kids. And maybe, they will teach us to do better by ourselves.

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