Trying to move past stereotypes

Our preconceived notions of other people, based largely on appearance and ethnicity, blind us to their humanity. Thus we dehumanize ourselves.

January 16, 2000|By M. Dion Thompson

JAWAD ABDULLAH has a simple request: "Deal with me as a human, not just my skin color."

In a perfect world, that would be easy. People wouldn't be put off by his long dreadlocks, his brown skin, his Trinidadian accent. People wouldn't try to squeeze him into a box.

"The merit of the person, that's what you should see, what's on the inside," says Abdullah, a 44-year-old doctoral candidate in engineering.

Abdullah works in the Baltimore City Police Department's crime lab and often was rebuffed when he went to burglary scenes.

"I'd come up with my kit and knock on the door, and they'd be waving, `No. No. We're closed,' "he says, recalling people who acted as if he had come to rob them, when he had been sent by the law to help them.

Stereotypes, the coding we pick up from family, friends, television, movies and our experiences, keep us from responding to Abdullah's request to consider each person's humanity instead of his appearance. For better or worse, stereotypes creep into every aspect of our lives.

They stem from our desire to simplify a world made up of a diverse sea of human faces. Humans, like all creatures, seek order. Our complicated, often chaotic world becomes a more orderly place when we tag whole groups of people with common characteristics based on skin color, ethnicity, age, gender.

The actions of a few stand for the many. Jews are stingy. Blacks are lazy. Italians are in the Mafia. Asians are smart. On and on. Like a distorting fun-house mirror, stereotypes skew our perspectives. Talk to people about being stereotyped, and you hear weariness and frustration, echoes of Abdullah's appeal.

None of this stops them from fighting against stereotyping. Some file suits, others use humor as a shield. Kap Park, a Korean businessman, helped start a program that brings together African-American and Korean-American children.

"We're planting seeds at an early age," he says. "I want these kids to find out, the Korean-American, the African-American, they can be friends."

Stereotypes don't spring wholly from the imagination. Each contains a kernel of truth. Someone fits every image. Yet the image gets inflated, distorted. It crowds out humanity. In the hands of comics, these stick figures become springboards to laughter.

Some stereotypes are so widely accepted, they become part of the national conversation. Remember Jimmy "J.J." Walker's ghetto buffoon exclaiming, "Dy-No-Mite!" Martin Lawrence, Joan Rivers and others have built careers on stereotypes and caricatures.

"Tupac [Shakur] had 400 years of stereotyping of black men to work with when he went to Hollywood," says Bruce Jacobs, author of "Race Matters." "Look at the gang banger. Look at the gangster rapper who is basically cashing in on America's worst stereotypes."

Several years ago, Susan Smith played on racial fears about black men and violence. Although Smith ultimately confessed to killing her children, the stereotype of black men as violent, predatory criminals persists. In some minds, blacks and crime are inextricably linked.

Black men are stopped so often on the country's highways, the phrase "driving while black" is entering the cultural lexicon. Last week in Annapolis, Baltimore Del. Howard P. Rawlings, the chairman of the House Appropriations Committee, said he will introduce legislation that aims to strike down the police practice of "racial profiling."

Humiliating experience

Being taken for a criminal shook Ken Jeffries' view of the world.

He grew up middle-class in the Carolinas and always respected the police. Then he was pulled over twice in three weeks on Interstate 95 -- once in Maryland with a friend, the other time alone near Richmond, Va.

These were new experiences for Jeffries, a 34-year-old biologist at the National Institutes of Health. There had been a couple of times on the golf links when whites didn't want to play with him. Those were irritating. Being stopped by the police was humiliating. The officers thought he was a drug dealer.

"It makes you feel that the law and society is stacked against you," says the clean-cut Jeffries, a former college linebacker. "If this is the type of profile that police do, then what is stacked against you when you try to get a job? What type of profiling are they using?"

Friends and family told him he was lucky. Jeffries almost made it through his 20s before the stereotype caught him. He responded by adding his name to a lawsuit against the Maryland State Police. He no longer trusts the police.

"Now, I wonder what are they thinking about me," he says. "What do they really think? Got a college degree. Work in a lab. Is that enough, or are you still just one of them?"

Stereotyping is about "us" and "them." The world is kept at arm's length. The "others" are not as good, not as clean, not as smart. "They" pray to the wrong God, eat strange food. "They" are, quite simply, not "our" kind of people.

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