Day 4: Rich, Loud and Carries a Backpack {31 Days of #WOKE}

Rich, Loud and Carries a Backpack--the danger of stereotypes

All Americans are loud, carry backpacks, wear sneakers, eat dessert and junk food, are overweight, speak only one language, are promiscuous, kick our kids out at age 18 and are rich. These are a few of the stereotypes about Americans I’ve heard in my travels, but especially from my Chinese friends during the five years I lived in northwest China.

“We know you love sweets,” my Chinese students said as I passed out brownies after dinner one Sunday evening. Three shy freshman students had come over to “teach” me how to cook Chinese food (a.k.a. they argued about how to do it the way their mothers had done it while I frantically scribbled notes on index cards). In an attempt to find something authentically American to serve to them, brownies was all I could come up with.

“Yes, many Americans like sweets,” I said. But then I blew them away.

“But I never ate dessert in my home.” They traded glances, questioning my sincerity since I had already rattled their worlds as I told them earlier that I loved spicy Chinese food and rarely ate burgers back in the states.

After five years in China, silence would still descend upon the room as I sat down to dinner with a new group of students in a restaurant. “You can use chopsticks?!” they would gasp, in awe of my skill. Snapping up a piece of eggplant from the dish, I’d suppress my sarcastic reply.

We stereotype others because it makes us feel like we are in control. It gives us a framework to solve the mystery of the “other.”

Don’t think you have stereotypes? Slowly read through this list and see what words your brain inserts:

Men are …

Women are …

Three year olds are …

Introverts like …

Extroverts like …

Evangelical Christians are …

Muslims are …

African Americans are …

Chinese are …

Mexicans are …

Indians are …

If you found yourself quickly responding with a word or phrase, you have made a stereotype.

Some stereotypes are helpful for decoding culture, but most insult the humanity of the unique individual. There is a striking scene in the T.V. show The Man in the High Castle where a Japanese family invites a white American man over under the guise of friendship. The couple rattles off questions about music and sports that whites “usually like,” but are increasingly disappointed when the man doesn’t fit their stereotypes. The white man senses he let down his new friends, but isn’t sure why.

It’s a scene I experienced many times in China and Uganda when friends would assume they understood me, only to find I didn’t fit their mold. I sensed their disappointment when I couldn’t educate them on pop culture or fashion in America. Some Americans might have cared, but I didn’t.

During my senior year of college I lived with an African family in a village outside of Kampala, Uganda. It was considered a middle class home, yet we didn’t have running water. The house servants washed dishes in the morning on a wooden table in the front yard as chickens squawked in the distance. Feeling useless, I offered to rise at dawn and help wash dishes. My host mother looked skeptical. “But we will just have to rewash them,” she said. “I know you have machines that do that in your country.”

The Nigerian author Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie gave the infamous TED Talk “The Danger of a Single Story.” In it, she said: “I’ve always felt that it is impossible to engage properly with a place or a person without engaging with all of the stories of that place and that person. The consequence of the single story is this: It robs people of dignity. It makes our recognition of our equal humanity difficult. It emphasizes how we are different rather than how we are similar …

The single story creates stereotypes, and the problem with stereotypes is not that they are untrue, but that they are incomplete. They make one story become the only story.”

I believe relationship is the key to deconstructing stereotypes. It is in relationship that we can finally see that we are more similar than we thought. At our core, we all desire love, purpose and security.

Unfortunately you may not have the opportunity to live with an African family, teach in the inner city or have a Muslim live in your home. And even experiencing other cultures in that way does not ensure you do not have stereotypes. So what can you do?

Read, listen and learn. Seek out new and possibly uncomfortable friendships. Pray for fresh eyes, open ears and humble hearts. Peel away the stereotypes you have formed and allow each person to stand on their own as the unique individuals they were created to be. But I would also encourage you to tell your own story. You never know when you might smash someone else’s stereotype of “people like you.”

***

What stereotypes do you have about the “other”?

How do these diminish the humanity of your neighbor?

Have you ever been hurt by being stereotyped?

If you haven’t, I would highly recommend watching “The Danger of a Single Story”:

New to the Series? Start HERE (though you can jump in at any point!).

A 31 Day Series Exploring Whiteness and Racial Perspectives

During the month of March, 2017, I will be sharing a series called 31 Days of #Woke. I’ll be doing some personal excavating of views of race I’ve developed through being in schools that were under court order to be integrated, teaching in an all black school as well as in diverse classrooms in Chicago and my experiences of whiteness living in Uganda and China. I’ll also have some people of color share their views and experiences of race in the United States (I still have some open spots, so contact me if you are a person of color who wants to share). So check back and join in the conversation. You are welcome in this space.

 

Rich, Loud and Carries a Backpack

Barn Dancing, the Inauguration and the International Women’s Club

I usually try not to use the internet to glamorize my life. The internet can be the high school yearbook view of life: perfect pictures, inspiring quotes and exciting events that include the highlights without the low-lights of life. The truth is that life is more often lived in the shadows. But yesterday was full of shadows for some in our country, so today I’d like to cast some light.

My son howled after I popped the balloon he had been beating his sister on the head with yesterday morning while I was trying to get us out the door. I eventually cajoled him and the other two into their car seats, checked directions on my phone, turned on public radio and eased our minivan out of the driveway. Thank God we have a date night planned tonight, I thought.

On the radio, a woman prayed for our country. A man spoke. A chorale sang sweet subversive words.

“Once we were strangers, we were welcomed, now we belong and believe in this land,” seemed a passive-aggressive jab at the new administration. With the final line, I exhaled, feeling tension fall away:

“Keep faith, guard mind, take heart, guard spirit, take courage, keep watch, feed longing, feed love.”

Take courage. Feed love.

My children stared quietly out the window as we drove from our small town to the larger college town, passing golden fields that stretched to low hills, with snowy mountains lurking behind.

“Why are those people clapping?” my two-year-old asked.

“Because we have a new president,” I answered dully. He had begun his first speech as the President of the United States.

Driving in circles, I switched off the radio mid-speech to focus on finding my destination. An Asian woman pointed to an empty parking space as I passed the resale shop we were meeting at. Strapping on the baby and reminding the other two to hold my hand, we found the rest of the group inside. Two Korean women browsed the women’s clothing, a Costa Rican high schooler smiled shyly at us and the leader—a Romanian woman—introduced herself and said we’d go next door for brunch in a few minutes.

At the restaurant, I settled my two kids with French toast and pushed back all the plates so my four-month-old couldn’t grab them. I looked up at the friendly new faces and we introduced ourselves. I told them I had lived in China and miss interacting with people from other countries and they each told me a small part of their story.

We didn’t talk about what was happening at that moment in Washington as we sat in the basement of an old home-turned café. We didn’t talk about marches, protests, inequality or misogyny. Instead, we communicated with the smiles that transcend language barriers, sharing simple facts about ourselves that help others build a picture of who we are in the shortest amount of time.

Afterwards, I beamed as my husband asked me how it was. This sort of thing feeds my soul. Goodbye Friday morning MOPS with your crafts and small talk, hello Friday morning International Women’s Club.

***

We got a babysitter in the evening and skipped like freed foals back to the college town. Looking for parking, cheery light burst through the windows of the music building as people mingled around and shifted into lines. Holding hands, we rushed inside and found a hundred people or more listening to instructions from the caller. Part hipster, part outdoorsman, young and fit with a beard, ironed plaid shirt and camouflage ball cap, the man leading the barn dance seemed to epitomize Colorado. A blue-grass band sat with instruments poised, ready to accompany the room of expectant men, women, and even some children of every age and class.

Soon, people were shedding outer layers and downing tiny plastic cups of water. We do-se-doed, allamanded left and right and promenaded with our partner after weaving hands with three new couples in our square. By the end of the night, my feet ached and my cheeks hurt from smiling so much. We laughed at the missteps, bumbles and wrong turns and clapped like children when we all got it right.

It made me wish church were more like this—like strangers from every walk of life forced to dance together–stepping on toes, turning the wrong direction and not taking life so seriously.

Yesterday was a heavy day for some and this day after the inauguration is full of history-making events like women’s marches, speeches and protests. I, too, have big feelings. But at the micro-level, life is still being lived.

Whether government dictates it or not, we continue the work of taking courage, keeping watch, feeding longing and feeding love. We intentionally enter uncomfortable situations as we experiment and escape our hum-drum life for a couple hours to make fools of ourselves and bounce around a room with strangers.  We learn how to belong by welcoming–and being–the stranger.