It’s MLK Day today! Apart from enjoying the luxury of a three-day weekend, I spent some time this morning reminiscing about the long way we’ve come along in terms of ditching age-old stereotypes. Just half a century ago, many people were fighting for a chance to be included in their own societies, without prejudice and segregation. Now, many of the “norms” of those times are considered bigotry and strongly frowned upon. However, we still fall prey to a certain kind of stereotypes — I call those the “benevolent” stereotypes.
“What are those ‘benevolent’ stereotypes?” you might ask. Let me give you two examples from the past 48 hours. Yes, you read correctly — I experienced two such stereotypes just in the course of one weekend!
First example — I was strolling in Georgetown on Saturday afternoon, doing some shopping. At one of the boutiques, I came across a fragrance I had wanted for a long time. The Asian-looking store assistant was very nice and provided some helpful advice about the fragrance I wanted to buy. As I proceeded with the purchase, however, he fell in the trap of the “benevolent” stereotype. Looking at my credit card, he asked the question I had heard so many times before. Genuinely trying to be friendly, he asked “Hmm… Is your name Russian? It sounds very Russian.”
Second example — Saturday evening, I went to a party. The hosts as well as most of the guests were graduates of one of the top schools in foreign policy, so you’d think you wouldn’t run across stereotyping there. Alas! As I was chatting with some friends of mine, one of the Dutch guys approached us with the following words, “So, is that the Eastern European corner? Never mind — I have Polish decent, as well. Which is why I can bang my head in the wall and it won’t break. I am as headstrong as any other Eastern European!” Now, that’s one hell of a party ice breaker, isn’t it?!
As you can see in both examples, the jokes were not intended to be harmful. In fact, the two people guilty of stereotyping were trying to be friendly and jovial. Yet, their words stuck with me (and I’m sure with other people who had been in similar situations). I was not hurt (after having lived in 6 foreign countries over 15 years, I’d know better than get hurt by small things like that). I was not annoyed. I was simply amazed that even 50 years after MLK, with so many campaigns for awareness and political correctness going on, we still get caught up in the act of stereotyping the others based on their nationality, name, language or accent.
And, then, I had a revelation when I woke up this morning. The experiences I described are still taking place because we — and I’m using the collective “we” as “we, the people” — have subconsciously split stereotypes into two categories: 1) The “malevolent, politically incorrect, offensive, inappropriate” stereotyping; and 2) The “benevolent, harmless, jovial, teasing” stereotyping. We have learned to detest and castigate the former type of stereotyping, but have also grown to ignore the latter. After all, it is utterly harmless to mistake a Bulgarian guy for a Russian, or to crack a joke about Eastern European “muzhiks.” Right?
“So what was my reply for both of those situations?” you might wonder. Well, I could have been a jackass and asked the Asian-looking store assistant whether he was from China because he looked Chinese. But I did not. Instead I smiled back to him and explained that my last name could never be Russian because the root of my name is a word that exists in Bulgarian, but is different in Russian.
Similarly, I could have been an equal jackass to the Dutch guy at the party, asking him if he also smoked a lot of pot since he was from Amsterdam. But I did not. Instead, I decided to crack a harmless joke that Eastern Europeans also have 9 lives, just like the cats. That broke the ice with that guy and we had a meaningful conversation afterwards.
So, my friends, it is MLK Day today and let’s remember that we still live in a world of stereotypes. Stereotypes have existed since ancient times, and will probably never cease to exist. But let’s also remember that when we come across a “benevolent” stereotype, it’s better to employ our humor rather than sting back with an equally stereotypical defensive answer. And next time we want to categorize something, let’s think twice before calling it one name or another. Because the person across from us may be seeing that same thing in a completely different way.
Happy MLK Day!
Care to share the most recent “benevolent” stereotypes you have come across? Please leave a comment with those.