Stereotypes

Weer’d made a comment in this post that kind of bugged me:

Still I’ve noticed that the more homogenous a population is in an area the more revolting the racism can be. I knew a ton of people in Maine who would drop the N-Bomb frequently, and would make horrible cracks about blacks….but I always wondered if they had even SEEN one.

It’s a LOT harder to make such cracks when you know people of a minority or other groups.

Where I grew up there were virtually no “people of color”. Technically the family farm was (and is) on an Indian reservation but most of the land had been purchased by whites over the years and no Indians have lived there since before I was born. 20 miles away, in Lapwai, the entire town was (and probably still is) essentially Nez Perce. But we only saw them when our schools competed. They were serious competitors just like the kids from Grangeville and Kamiah who also had few, if any, non-whites. Their athletic ability was everything. The only pigmentation that mattered was that of their uniform. The inferiority of that pigmentation did not extrapolate to an inferiority in the pigmentation of their skin.

But blacks? I think there might have been one guy in our entire high school for a few months. I saw people with black skin on TV (remember “Red Skelton”, “Bill Cosby”, and “Sanford and Son”?) and when our family went to California to visit relatives. But never around home.

Jews? Zero would be my guess. And I don’t recall even getting a sense of what physical characteristic might be associated with being a Jew from TV. I just thought of it as a different religion.

People of Asian descent were recognizable from TV but I don’t recall actually seeing any until I went to college. One of mom’s best friends from high school (I think) was of Japanese descent. But she still lived in the Los Angles area where they had met. They kept in touch via mail, an occasional phone call, and rare visits that didn’t occur until after I left home.

When I was a freshman in college I took a sociology class and one of the first things we did was look at stereotypes. We were supposed to identify the stereotypes associated with a collection of various people in a picture. I had no idea.

Then there was the stereotypes associated various last names. I had no idea.

I was surprised to find out that my classmates knew what type of name was “supposed” to be associated with what type of personality trait. What makes you think you can determine a personality from their name or a picture of them? Are you insane? I didn’t even know how to determine nationality from someone’s name. Blonde hair? Okay, maybe that was Scandinavian. But my younger brother was blonde and we didn’t have any Scandinavian ancestors that I had ever heard about. Straight black hair and the different eyes, yeah, that was Asian. I knew that from television and national geographic. The same with black skin and tightly curled black hair and people with origins in Africa.

Our neighbors had names like Pressnall, Newman, Carey, Lansing, Weaver, Sullivan, Hasse, Brown, Morgan, Choate, Preussler, Yenni, Vaughn, Morgan, Vannoy, Reece, Cole, Cook, Daniels, King, Ferguson, Petticord, Wisdom, McIver, Woods, Johnson, LeBaron, Parks, Henderson, Schroader, Medlock, Cox, and Schneider. Add in Huffman and you would have essentially all the last names within two or three miles of where I grew up, the kids and teachers I went to grade school with.

I knew the Schroader’s and the Hasse’s were from Germany because of their accents but I had no idea the national origins of anyone outside our family. To the best of my knowledge their families had been in the U.S. for multiple generations like mine and they were, for all practical purposes, “from” Idaho. National origin, religion, and pigmentation were completely, totally, irrelevant to our interactions with each other. And so it was when I met a much greater variety of people with different attributes when I went to college.

I approached my sociology 101 instructor, a TA, and told them I didn’t have a clue how to answer the questions or where to look up the answers. The answers certainly weren’t in the book. I think she was just as uncomprehending of the situation as I was. “Everybody knows these things. It’s just the things learned growing up, from friends, family, the media, and associating with other people in general.” After insisting that I certainly didn’t learn these anywhere she finally assured me that it wasn’t really that important. The exercise wasn’t even going to be graded. It was just to demonstrate a point.

I was rather unsettled by “the point.” The only point I got was that somehow “everybody” knew the answers but I had nearly no clue and had no idea how to research the answers.

This was extremely new territory for me. School up to that point had been almost trivially easy to me. To the point that I had poor study habits and except for English and spelling classes (they are illogical and inconsistent) could read the text book, zip through the homework, then half listen to lectures and get B’s and A’s with almost no studying for the tests. I did have some problems when the teachers were wrong about something and they wouldn’t listen to me when I tried to correct them. But that was only an issue in grade school.

High school was fun and I liked all but two of my teachers. One was a drunk who ultimately killed himself when he drove off the road at high speed when leaving a brothel. And the one that read the textbook, sentence by sentence of a previous edition to the one we had, called it a lecture, and insisted we write down every word as “notes”. There was one who was about two thirds nuts and a horrible teacher, but he was likable and I learned quite a bit from reading the text book and doing the lab experiments.

Now I was confronted by a situation where not only was the material illogical but I had no way to research the correct answers and the instructor said, “Everybody knows this”. A similar thing happened in English 101 when the instructor told us we didn’t need to explain certain universal concepts like Original Sin and The Trinity in our essays. I had no idea what Original Sin or The Trinity were (my family was Christian Scientist). I was able to look it up but it was quite discomforting that, again, “everybody” was supposed to know something that I had no clue about.

If you have been reading my blog for a long time you will probably recall that I have semi-frequently said that I know I’m “different”. The material above is a significant component of how I came to realize this.

My sociology instructor was right. That failing of mine in the first week or so was only of significance to me. I didn’t have any real issues in getting through college but I majored in Electrical Engineering which was so much easier than those messy illogical things. Illogical claims, emotional reasoning, and empathy for people claiming knowledge while spouting nonsense are still almost impossible for me. But I don’t worry about it like I used to.

It wasn’t until much, much later when people accused me of being racist and prejudiced because I was from Idaho didn’t agree with their leftist agenda that I did some serious self examination. Was I really a racist and just didn’t know it? After all, the stereotype fit, right? I concluded, and I believe rightly so, it was my accusers that were prejudiced, racist, and bigots to boot.

Back to the post by Weer’d.

I know that “everybody knows” that if you don’t have contact with other races, religions, etc. then you are going to have prejudiced views of “others”. I could be snarky here and just let Robert Heinlein school you on what it means when someone says “everybody knows”. But more serious guidance is called for in this instance.

I contend there must be a cofactor if not a completely different basis for the prejudice that just happens to be highly correlated. You can throw this data point out as an outlier but you might also be missing a solution or perhaps a way to mitigate a serious societal issue.

9 thoughts on “Stereotypes

  1. I can sort of relate. There was one black person that I recall from HS, a girl named Miriam. Good athlete. Nice. No reason to say bad things about “blacks in general” because there were not any “generally” around, there was just her. If you didn’t get along with *her*, then it was *her,” not anyone else “generally.” I think that makes part of the difference. Some places are very parochial, and (generally) the longer a place has been settled the more it becomes. Main has been settled for centuries, and most residents can trace ancestors back to the revolution, and anyone new enough to not be able to is a “foreigner.” Further west, pretty much everyone is a newcomer, relatively speaking, and because of a more mobile population there has developed less of a “local tribe” mentality.
    My parents are Unitarians, and we were raised nominally christian, but mostly of a “Easter & Christmas, golden rule” sort, and I think any stereotypes we picked up it was from personal interactions with people out in the world. But, yeah, when people look at a person and say “you’re white, you must be racists,” I think it does say more about them than anyone else. In industries where competence counts for everything, such as engineering, you find a lot less prejudice, I think, because math doesn’t care what you feel about the subject, 2+2 will equal 4 every single day, rain or shine, for man or woman, black or white, married or single. Avoiding reality is simply not an option for people in that sort of field.

  2. The place I remember people dropping N-bombs the most was when I did training at Harlem Hospital. It was pretty much a homogenous population in that area. It was also the first time I was ever called a cracker and had no clue what that was suppose to mean.

  3. You are what you were born into, until you strike out on your own, and if you are of average intelligence/competence, you begin to reject your parents’ stereotypes as soon as you find them impossible to accept as creeds.

    As a young man, I had two horribly racist parents. Neither of them had accepted the black race in any way, shape or form as equal to whites. My father, a career Navy officer and Medical Doctor, was only just getting over his hatred of Japanese, who he fought in the Pacific in WW2. I grew up in the white privileged class because that was where my parents existed. I went to a private high school SPECIFICALLY because my parents did not want me rubbing shoulders with the rapidly-becoming-dominant urban blacks in Washington DC where we lived.

    Then I entered the real world, survived college, got my degree and entered the Air Force, by then (1967) completely desegregated. My choice was to either accept blacks as equal, or else fail to advance. I accepted, and never looked back. I eventually wound up on one of the only B-52 nuke bomber crews in the Strategic Air Command with black crew members, and we worked well as a team, rose to the top, becoming the premier (by competition) crew in a two-squadron Wing at March AFB in Riverside, CA.

    Since then, I judge everyone who I need to judge on merit: what can they do for their job, for their country, for their community. I find just as many whites who fail this standard as I find blacks, so I have determined that lack of merit is not racial, it is societal. Accordingly, I have transferred my judgemental observations to my society, which must succeed or fail on merit and moral values, not on race. In that respect, I am a better person than my parents.

  4. One of the most shockingly, openly racist people I ever met was a Progressive, white, college music education student from Chicago. The next most racist person ever I met was a Progressive, black, college education student from Chicago– She ended up marrying a thin, lily-white, Scandinavian music student. I doubt it went well, but I lost contact with them after that.

    Most people tend to keep their racism very close, only letting a little bit out here and there to probe you for your receptiveness of it. Growing up in Eastern Washington State, we were frequently exposed to what I would call remnants of Civil War racism from Northern whites. Some of it was a fairly regular part of the language among the whites of mixed European heritage.

  5. I’ve had similar problems after growing up in a mostly all white area. I guess you are supposed to edit criticism of minorities because they are minorities, or you are a racist. No, I treat them like everyone else, therefore I am not a racist. I am not saying that they do what they do because of their race, duh. I should be able to talk about someone’s shortcomings even if their skin color is different.

  6. I feel your pain Joe, growing up in “The land of trees and Swedes” I never really experienced any sort of racism inherent in highly stratified cultures such as cities. When I met a black Soldier from Chicago I was confronted with a person who was used to making an issue of race, and how some things that were obviously not related to race were somehow related to race in his world. It was an eye opener, that there really were people who were so race conscious that they couldn’t treat anyone with equality.

  7. The high school I attended was in rural Oregon. We had one black student – average grades, so-so athlete. But being our only black student during the 70’s, the fellow was elevated to celebrity status, getting such ambitious high school honors as “Boy of the Year” and Most Likely to Succeed. The school was, obviously, entirely racist in a benign sort of way. Rather than judge the youth on his merits and character, he was judged by his color.

  8. I don’t really understand where racism comes from but I know it exists.

    On my last job, we frequently got temporary workers and then hired them for full time. There was a black girl I really liked — she was funny, smart, a good worker and got along with everyone else. I wanted to hire her full time but was told I could not “because she’s black.” The owner would not hire black people. Period.

    Now that’s racism.

    • “Where racism comes from” is fundamentally tribal. It’s “us” and “other” that is part and parcel of our genetics, to one degree or another, which can be tamed/moderated by upbringing and experience. It’s a basic Darwinian genetic survival trait in times of limited resources. Because the US has been so comfortable and resource-rich for so long, it’s been moderated likely more than at any time in world history. But give us hard times, I mean REALLY hard times, and it’ll be back with a vengeance, I’m sure.
      It may be that “us” and “other” will get redefined somewhat in cultural terms rather than genetic, in places. But when you are starving (literally) and your kids haven’t eaten in two days, do you kill the stranger that looks a lot like you and take their food, or the “other” that looks totally different in terms of skin color or manner and language?
      Easy choice for most people, because in the end, Darwin always has the last word; we are all descended from people that had to make that choice at one point or many in the last 10,000 years.

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