Tuesday, February 9, 2010

When is it a stereotype and when is it just you?

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.


IzumiBayani said...

I don't look white, and the closest (and most accurate) guess people make about my racial identity is some sort of "Asian".

I've always wanted to grow a mustache, but every time I shave and leave a 'stache, I always end up shaving it off because it makes me very obviously Asian. I also can't deny I eat with chopsticks, lots of "sticky" rice, and take off my shoes in any house unless specifically told not to. I also LOVE the fact that I speak Japanese, but I hate revealing that to people. Dunno how that one fits but it does. I constantly think everyday what I give and take to the general stereotypes of Asian people.

I also find it interesting to think that white people worry about their racial identity when making everyday decisions. i really don't think they do because white people have the privilege to speak only for themselves, not their entire race. In fact, I would say that white people do things that flaunt their whiteness. Wearing aviators, popping their collars, and driving around nice cars listening to 50 Cent come immediately to mind

M. said...

when it comes to stereotypes, it doesn't really bother me. you can't deny that some stereotypes are true. am i going to stop eating rice because i'm asian? (this is referring to the fact that asians eat rice with everything.) and i wonder for those who avoid doing "stereotypical" things, wouldn't that mean that they're trying to distance themselves from their race?

IzumiBayani said...

I don't think I'm trying to distance myself from my race. I'm distancing myself away from my stereotypes. Eating rice is culture. There's a huge historical context to it. It becomes a stereotype when someone generalizes it and uses it as an insult. In addition, I think I'm trying to distance myself from harmful stereotypes about my race in order to reclaim my identity, and be able to shape my race on my own. But since that isn't possible right now because of how pervasive stereotypes are, I must continue to decided on a day to day basis how I represent my race

david said...

Stereotype's are when a group of people, racial or ethnic, do something in general. So if I happen to eat burgers, and is seen that every white person does, then it's seen as a stereotype.

Now for me, I don't notice myself doing things that are stereotypical to white people. I'm an individualist. If I do things that happen to be stereotypical, it doesn't bother me.

To address Izumi's comment about white people, I don't think that people do things that flaunt their whiteness. I think it's more of social status. I also think it's the ghetto culture that influencing white people.

IzumiBayani said...

what's ghetto culture?

david said...


Ghetto culture is the whole popping collars, wearing aviators, listening to 50 cent you just described. It's the gangster stuff.

IzumiBayani said...

Why is that ghetto culture? What does the word "ghetto" mean?

dkh said...

David. What in the effing eff?

J. I loved that vignette in SH - and many others - that awesome combination of youth perspective + race commentary + cultural commentary + pop culture 80s (ok, that last one having not so much to do with the portion you quoted, but STILL). Like the main character's dilemmas about music choices, for example.

I too was an 80's child and grew up in a whitewashed tourist town, albeit on the left coast, so it was so delicious to read so many things that resonated with my own experience, and then to have them said 100x better than I could have put them myself. And it was really cool knowing how autobiographical SH was for Whitehead. I remember reading his letter about the book, talking about how most people do the semiautobiographical first novel, but he's left it until now, and hoped it was better for it.

Can't wait for his next work.