Wednesday, June 3, 2009

Everyday Stereotypes. Instinctual or Shameful?

These past few weeks have made many of us revisit stereotypes. I too, juggled anger and sadness as I mourned the loss of another police office, stereotyped and killed. I watched the funeral procession for Officer Omar Edwards and as the limousine carrying Officer Edwards' wife and son stopped in front of me I saw the heartbreak in her face. In that moment, it was undeniable that stereotypes are harmful generalizations that destroy families and divide communities. I then quickly passed my own judgment of Andrew Dunton, the officer who shot him. Typical White officer who will grieve for a little while and then over time will put it behind him and live his life without another thought of the event. Maybe this is true, but probably not. Probably just another stereotype. Perhaps in reality Officer Dunton will be living a sort of continuous nightmare to be replayed in his mind over and over again.

This reminds me of a scene from the movie Crash. Sandra Bullock stereotypes two young Black men as they pass her, by clutching her purse, which has them get pissed off about White people stereotyping them. Then suddenly they pull a gun on her and carry out their planned carjacking.

So what does this tell us about stereotypes? That they are harmful? In the case of Officer Edwards, no doubt. But in this fictional, but reality-based movie scene, perhaps not. This made me ponder my own experiences being stereotyped and stereotyping others.

I found a good example of my own experience with this subject just a few days ago. I bought a 'top of the line' breast pump from a seller on Craigslist. Now I consider myself a full-fledged Craigslist-er. If I need it, I go there first. Good for my wallet and the environment. Actually, I have a whole set of judgments about people who are opposed to used items. I am constantly shaking my head when I see people buy expensive baby items, refusing used items and then struggling to pay the rent and buy food. I was appalled to see a toddler Cadillac Escalade ON SALE in a Toys-R-Us catalog for JUST $329. But I am sure that some struggling parent in the hood will forego rent to jump on this "deal" for their 3-year-old. Some call it being a loving parent. I call it misplaced priorities. So anyway, I went to pick up this breast pump, which was listed as new (for health reasons I only wanted this particular item new). The seller did not look the way I pictured her. From her name, I pictured her to be a 30-something, middle-income, Black woman with locks, which I have to admit made me feel good about this purchase. A natural, conscious, intelligent woman. Actually, she appeared to be no more than 25, was Latina and a bit ghetto-fied. Her building was nice from the outside but from her speaking the building was no paradise and it was apparent that its residents were low-income. She was selling this pump because she got it as a gift and didn't use it. My inner voice said "this is not an item HER friend or family member would buy new." Why? You have to really know about breastfeeding and breast pumps to buy an expensive model (which run almost $300). In my experience working with young, low-income mothers, very few breastfeed and most come from generations of women who also did not breastfeed. It's not that I didn't think her family or friends could afford such an item. I just didn't think they would use the money to buy THIS item. Perhaps a new stroller, crib, or designer clothing. Another stereotype, yes, but again based on experience. I immediatly scolded myself for making such an assessment. How awful of me to have such a thought. I didn't know this woman. To another person, I may not have looked so much different than her. In fact, although I am approaching 30 and married, I have often felt that burning stare from older women, shaking their heads at what they assume to be another young, unwed mother.

Recently at a prenatal appointment, I had a doctor tell me my preliminary tests showed signs of what was probably an STD and asked if I had questions about any of my partners, with an S. After I explained I was happily married and had no questions, he nodded and again told me I probably had contracted an STD. Luckily for my husband, I am not the 'fly into a jealous rage' type, so he was in no danger. I imagine though that other fathers-to-be were not so lucky after their partners went to visit this doctor. Helpful hint to doctors... don't tell a pregnant woman she has probably contracted an STD before you have the test results, unless you want to see them on the evening news. To no surprise, the final test results showed only normal levels of elevated whatevers. Not an STD. I spoke about my upset with my husband and he asked me, "do you think if you were an Orthodox Jewish woman the doctor would have made that prediction?" Hmmm. Actually, no.

So, back to the breast pump again. I had scolded myself for stereotyping this young woman and with doubts still in my mind about the legitimacy of this item, I went with my impartial, politically correct self and bought it. Later, as the inner me crept back into the picture, I needed more reassurance that this item had never been used. I contacted her for more information and after several emails I found out that, in fact it wasn't new. She got it as a gift from someone who got it cheap at a random mom-and-pop store. My assessments had been correct. She did not know anything about breast pumps nor did the woman who bought it cheap. Would I have been wrong to go with my initial, stereotypical judgment? Now, sitting with an item I am not happy with, I would say no.

Where does this leave us? Where is the line between harmful stereotypes and simple intuitions? When are we correct in following our instincts or dismissing our stereotypes? Officer Dunton was terribly wrong in acting on his assessment, as I am sure he will never forget. The doctor who confidently told me without proof that I had an STD was also wrong. And I was correct in my judgment, but dismissed it. Now, just like Officer Dunton I wish I could go back and do it over (although on a scale of importance my experience is obviously inconsequential). Should we only entertain stereotypes when the stakes are low and have only small potential consequences? What about when a parent's instincts tell them their child is near a possible sexual predator? Should they ignore their feeling because they may be making an inaccurate assumption? As a parent, I say no. So maybe there is middle ground. Maybe before we jump to a conclusion, we can pause for a moment to ascertain whether it is our gut or our learned prejudices in control. We can be caucious but not fearful and ask questions until we can make an intelligent decision. This is by no means a black and white discussion, but perhaps by giving others the benefit of the doubt while still using a moment of caution we can minimize unwanted outcomes while diminishing harmful stereotypes.