When is it stereotype and when is it just you?

[Editor's note: When I read Jennifer's post below, I was struck by the idea that even as a youth, the boy in Colson Whitehead's book knew to avoid actions that might reaffirm racial stereotypes, even if that meant denying some real want or intrinsic part of himself. Though Whitehead's book is fiction, this way that people of color contort themselves in the face of bias is not fictional. It is also real that we often teach our children to contort themselves. There is a black comedian who has this riff on black folks in the age of Obama, how now we can relax, but how back in the day certain behaviors done in public would prompt a "Don't go acting a fool in front of white folks!" My experience is that there are many good reasons for members of marginalized groups to monitor their behavior around the majority. It's not fair, but often necessary. Can we communicate these things without teaching our children to deny their authentic selves? Does it matter? Is the idea of changing your behavior in the presence of the majority a bad one?]

written by guest contributor Jennifer; originally published at Mixed Race America

Let me first begin by saying that I am not on the payroll of Doubleday and Colson Whitehead’s agent is not paying me to plug any of his works on this blog. But I have just finished reading his latest novel Sag Harbor, and if I weren’t convinced that he was one of the most brilliant contemporary voices in American letters, this novel would clinch it.

But this isn’t going to be a book review (although one will be coming). I introduce his latest novel because I want to quote from a long paragraph since it really got me thinking about stereotypes–about how we learn stereotypes, how they get perpetuated, how we try to resist and defy them, and what we do when we find ourselves paradoxically in a situation where we know our actions or clothing or speech may be perpetuating stereotypes yet none-the-less we are being authentically ourselves.

So to set the scene, Whitehead’s fifteen-year-old protagonist, Benji, is musing about things that one absolutely did not do if one is black because there are certain stereotypes that you are never, EVER to perpetuate:

“You didn’t, for example, walk down Main Street with a watermelon under your arm. Even if you had a pretty good reason. Like, you were going to a potluck and each person had to bring an item and your item just happened to be a watermelon, luck of the draw, and you wrote this on a sign so everyone would understand the context, and as you walked down Main Street you held the sign in one hand and the explained watermelon in the other, all casual, perhaps nodding between the watermelon and the sign for extra emphasis if you made eye contact. This would not happen. We were on display. You’d add cover purchases, as if you were buying hemorrhoid cream or something, throw some apples in the basket, a carton of milk, butter, some fucking saltines, and all smiles at the register.” (Whitehead 88)

[Aside: I know I will be accused of being either naive or disingenuous, but I didn't get the whole stereotype of African Americans and watermelon until I had graduated from college and was working as an Assistant Resident Director at UCSB. But I must admit that it was only while doing RA and ARD training that I started to learn a lot about ethnic and racial stereotypes that had somehow never blipped across my radar to pierce my consciousness. In hindsight I can see how they all played out in cartoons--you know those racist Loony Tune cartoons (I still vividly remember one of Tojo and WWII and Bugs Bunny and a Liberty garden) but somehow I never made the connection between pop culture and real people in a conscious way until I hit college. Or maybe it was there all along and I was repressing it, who knows]

Whitehead’s passage reminds me of a story that my friend “M” told me. “M” is African American and this exact scenario happened to him–he was headed to a bbq, asked to pick up watermelon, and while walking from the supermarket to his car encountered a black friend who pointed at the watermelon, and they both laughed.

So it got me thinking. I mean, “M” likes watermelon. Is he supposed to not buy watermelon or get a non-black friend to buy watermelon for him because he doesn’t want to be perpetuating stereotypes? I sometimes think of these things, especially when I find myself either in Chinatown or during my one trip to Hong Kong. There are these beautiful dresses, cheongsam, and I thought of buying one. But then I thought, when would I wear it?

So I have never bought one, although I’d like to. I just can’t envision a place where I’d feel comfortable wearing it. It’s a special-occasion type dress, evening wear. When I first got married (and I mean my first marriage not my impending one), I contemplated changing into one after the ceremony, a typical move that Chinese/Chinese American brides often make–wearing a Western gown for one portion and a traditional gown for another part of the wedding. But honestly, now, especially in the South, would I really wear this to the English Department holiday party? Wouldn’t I just be wearing a sign saying, “My name Suzy Wong. I good girl” (is everyone old enough to get that reference? It’s a PG reference, I figure you can use your imaginations to imagine other versions).

Anyway, I’m wondering, dear readers, if there are any things you avoid that you genuinely like to do in order NOT to feel like you are perpetuating a certain stereotype about your ethnic or racial group. And most especially, I’m wondering, are there things that white Americans avoid because they don’t want to be stereotyped as…white Americans? Would a middle-aged white American man avoid buying a maserati even if he wanted one because he didn’t want to be a walking cliche? I suppose I could say I avoid wearing tweed jackets with leather patches on the elbows, but the thing is, I’m so NOT what one has in mind when you are asked to envision a college English professor that I think me wearing this outfit would be seen as ironic rather than stereotypical.

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About Tami

Tami Winfrey Harris writes about race, feminism, politics and pop culture at the blog What Tami Said. Her work has also appeared online at The Guardian’s Comment is Free, Ms. Magazine blog, Newsweek, Change.org, Huffington Post and Racialicious. She is a graduate of the Iowa State University Greenlee School of Journalism. She is mom to two awesome stepkids and spends her spare time researching her family history and cultivating a righteous 'fro.
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