Monday, May 30, 2011


I have recently been party to a discussion about stereotypes, and I was thinking how valuable they are. For people who don't have time to think things through, they are a short-cut that makes the world far more tidy.  And please don't think that I'm putting myself above the crowd. I'm sure that there are people that I stereotype. After all, I am busy, too.

Now, I'm a white (glow-in-the-dark white) Jewish person. I don't know how often I have to mention this. My husband, too, is Jewish and white, though nearly quite so pale. We left South Central Los Angeles eight years ago and moved to Western Colorado, chasing employment. In South Central Los Angeles (which has since legally changed its name to South Los Angeles, as if that will change its reality) we were leaving  people we considered family as well as many other beloved neighbors in our extremely warm and caring mostly African-American neighborhood in Los Angeles--a neighborhood that stretched for blocks, and where, within a few weeks, we knew literally eighty families, and where walking the dogs could take two hours because of having to stop and talk to everyone.

The city where we lived had a population, according to the 2000 census,  of 43,000 and within the whole valley there were more like 100,000.

Also according to the 2000 census, there were 326 African-Americans, seven immigrants from Nepal,  five people of Chinese ancestry and two Japanese immigrants. In fact, the day we we arrived to move into our house, we were astonished and touched that the airport employees recognized a Japanese visitor and knew whom she was visiting, then listened with some degree of horror as they explained that "She's the only Oriental who ever flies into town," and so thus was highly memorable.)

Thus I had a visceral response to all the whiteness in our new town; I found myself wanting to hug and pet every person of color I met. The black people laughed and told me they, themselves, got whiplash when they saw another African-American, (their heads whipping around in astonishment.) They were patient with my wanting to sit by them and talk with them. And oh, they felt like home.

There were very few Jews in this town, (surprise surprise) but there were a lot of Jews for Jesus, who truly believed that they, too, could legally make Aliyah to Israel and were surprised when they could not.  At every Jewish holiday, the local TV station turned to the Jews for Jesus for an explanation, and after every TV report, the tiny Jewish community (with Orthodox, Reform and Conservative, of necessity, sharing one synagogue and people driving from hundreds of miles away for holidays) would speak to the local TV station manager and say, "No, we're the Jews. They are Christians. You have to come to us." Both TV and radio station never did.

Within a month, we came to understand that the phrase, "A wonderful place to raise children," which had sucked us in to thinking we could live in this town, was really code for "No blacks, no Jews, few Asians, and only modest and retiring Hispanics and Native Americans." Within a week--I am not kidding, it took us only seven days--we were desperate to move out.

My sister reminded me that for everyone I met, I was likely the ONLY JEW they would ever know. Having spent my childhood as a little Ambassador of Judaism in small Midwestern towns, I was familiar with this drill. I know that if you are African-American, or Asian, or any other minority, you have all had twinges of this feeling--how you must always be perfect, and clean and neat, and smart, and kind and patient and calm, because however you act is how They will Always View every one of You.

While I managed this with aplomb as a child, as a grownup, I found it tedious. I did not want to be patient with the idiots--um, kind-hearted, ignorant people--who constantly tried to convert me, I did not want to be all-the-time explaining that there was not one Jewish point of view. I did not want to be educating everyone I met about Jewish beliefs and Jewish holidays, and why we eat matza and how Chanukah is a minor festival and why it was not possible for a Jew to believe that Jesus is the messiah.

I remember taking a dining room chair to be repaired, knocking on the door of a workshop with a mezuzah on the outside, and the name McGillicuddy on the mailbox, and being greeted by a broad fellow wearing tzit-tzit and a kepah. I was so relieved when he explained to me that he did not consider himself a Jew for Jesus, but rather an Old Testament Christian. At last somebody who was willing to state the truth about that odd cult, designed originally to try to peel young Jews away from their religion when they were in college, but clearly having morphed into it's own complete sect of Christianity. He told me the Jews for Jesus weren't so fond of him, either, because he refused to call himself a Jew, but he was using a fairly accurate description, as someone who was following the Old Testatment jots and tittles that Paul had casually thrown aside, though even there, like anybody going by either Testament, he was cherry-picking what rules he chose to follow.

But at least he was not saying that he was a Jew. At least he understood that a follower of a messiah, however Jewish he might have been, could not be a part of a religion that states that when we have healed the world completely, a messiah will come. (Though not all Jews even believe in a messiah--see non-monolithic Judiasm above.)

Oh, I hated that town. I pushed and shoved and dragged and insisted (not that my husband needed much pushing, but he did feel we had to find jobs to leave. Finally, we did not. Even so, we were with relief to get out of there, though we depleted our savings to do so. We still occasionally joke to one another, "Don't you wish you were back in Colorado?" just to see the expression of horror our faces, though we might have enjoyed another Colorado town.

But--that town was a terrific reminder that stereotypes have a reason for being.

A) many people literally do not know someone who is African-American or Jewish or Asian.
B) Those who do are often not on a comfortable enough basis to have a sense of what family-life might be like, or what a neighborhood might be like, or what daily-life might be like.
C) they have an innate, built-in sense that those like them are the ones to talk with, so are unlikely to open up a discussion with, say, someone who looks Ute or Navajo or with a foreign accent.
D) They are taught it is not polite to ask.
E) if they ask, they might not encounter someone interested in telling or they might encounter someone who is being a little ambassador of their culture, and thus who will not tell the truth.
F) they may assume that every other person of that minority they meet is exactly the same as the person before them doing the explaining, and thus All Jews Are or All Blacks Are, etc. or
G) they may assume that all Other Jews or Blacks are really the stereotype, but the one in front of them is the rare, and special exception, because the stereotype they have been raised with is so strongly in their minds.

For these people, stereotypes are all they know, and a short-hand that makes the "other" feel safe, just as I might be accused right now of stereotyping people from this town in Colorado, though if anybody wanted to hear, I could give a far more nuanced description of the people I met and the town and the meth problem and the curbs everybody had someone pour in their lawns, because God forbid that their grass should touch their shrubs, and the noxious weeds that punctured tires and. . .oh, that would all be too tedious.

But I have also come to believe, from living where I live now, more or less surrounded by Liberals, that there are certain people whose personality or brains make it hard for them to view the world with any kind of nuance.

And I'm not saying Republicans, because one of my extremely liberal neighbors shows the same qualities--I remember when she insisted that suffering torture negatively affected the brain and therefore John McCain, having suffered torture, could never again think clearly, to which I replied, "Just like Nelson Mandela and Martin Luther King and all those victims of Concentration Camps." "Oh," she said, but I doubt if it changed her mind on the basic point, which was that John McCain could never think clearly. Liberals, too, can have minds that want things all or nothing, black or white.

And I'm not saying Christians, or People of the Book (Muslims and Christians and Jews), because I know some pagans who are just as passionate and just as certain that theirs is the Right Way and everybody else is Wrong. (Though not all Christians or Muslims or Jews or Pagans or Atheists for that matter, think theirs is the only right way to believe.)

But for people who do Know the Truth,  and more importantly, believe it can be Known, it may not matter how often you show them nuance. They may always come to rest on stereotypes. I am learning from raising children that some people from the get go have minds that are more rigid than others. Some people may simply be made to see more stereotypes, and be far more comfortable doing so.

Still, I am hopeful that how people are raised can make some difference. For instance, there are studies now showing that not talking about our differences--which most white people are politely taught not to do-- increases bigotry in children. When a child says, "Mommy, that man's skin is black," pointing to the guy in front of them in line, and Mommy doesn't say to the child--and to the man, "Yup. He has more pigment in his skin than we do. But see, he has freckles like you do," but instead says, "Hush, that's rude," the child is learning more than politeness. The child is learning that differences are shameful, that he is the better kind, and that to talk about it is rude.

I suppose in the meantime that those of us who are minorities can continue to be Ambassadors of ourselves. And that those of us who are majorities--as I am a recipient daily of what is called White Privilege--can make sure to talk with our children about minorities and the challenges they can encounter in the world. We can all talk about different cultures with our children, and with ourselves and with the others we may meet along the road, sharing what is coming to be called our own "Race Story," our own experiences with others who are not precisely like ourselves.

And maybe we can visit Western Colorado and do so, and maybe we can do so in rural Alabama or in the heart of the inner City, or in Alberta, Canada, or in Peoria. And maybe, little by little, we can ease away the stereotypes, at least as much as is possible in this busy, busy world.

Sara Selznick

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  1. I thoroughly enjoyed this! Having a 'race' talk is the healthiest way to eliminate sterotypes and as you say, not having those important conversations with our children when they are inquisitive perpetuates the myth that one race is superior over the other. It should also be stated that for people who have had so little exposure to other cultures, by choice or not, may not understand their behavior as someone would of another race or culture. What they do is of the norm for them and yes, it is a safe little bubble to live in as long as they don't have offspring to raise certain questions.

    Still learning, Still growing

  2. Dear Tosh,

    It's a "race" conversation even if it's, "I never knew anybody else who was a. . .I don't know, bi-sexual Lapp-lander before." That's part of how someone learned about race etc.