Wednesday, September 16, 2009

Who do you say that I am?

The cover story in last week's Newsweek started my wheels turning about stereotype. (It's a long article, but absolutely worth the read; will probably change your perception of how children view each other and form opinions about people. AND, it incidentally features research gathered and performed by my Best Friend from high school, but she goes unacknowledged in the article. Ultimately the best thing for her.) A close girlfriend once asked me how I rationalize the human mind's need to stereotype: "kids learn by making generalizations," she said to me, "it's a viable, practical means of learning about the world around you. How do you cope with the fact that people have to learn some things by generalizing?"

I don't know what I said then, but I think what I would say now is that while it's true that kids and adults generalize about the world around them, and that this is a helpful means of learning about some things, it's not a helpful means of learning about other people. It's a good rule to assume that if one stove can burn you, then all stoves have the capacity to burn you. It's not, however, a good rule to assume that if you encounter one white man with a shaved head who wants the death and demise of you and all your people, that every bare-headed white guy you meet feels the same.

I (of course) can't remember any young, really really young practices that helped me form ideas about people of other races. I can remember being told things about being black, about white people, from both my parents. My father would tell me that he was always chronically early for things--as much as he could help it--because he never wanted to give anyone reason to think he was just another late nigger running on c.p. time. My mother filled my head with various stereotypes, that black men only like women with long straight hair or light skin, or both, that black men only want what they can't have, which is the only reason any black man would ever date a white woman in the first place, that the only reason white men date black women is because they think black women are raging nymphomaniacs (a stereotypical sentiment that I learned is echoed in certain perceptions of Asian women as wives). This kinda shit will really fuck up a girl's dating life, you know what I mean?

This hyper-awareness of stereotype breeds, and has bred in me, a painfully high awareness of what other people think. I think all the time, more often than I would like, about what other people think about me. I know more than I wish I did about what's proper and appropriate, and don't get me started on how loaded those two words are for me. I'm finding that as I slowly but surely make plans for big day, that what I want is sometimes at odds with the voice in my head that says, "but this isn't how it's done. What will people think of you if this is the choice you make?" (This voice sounds suspiciously like my mom. Hmm...)

I wrote a thesis in college based around Invisible Man by Ralph Ellison. This novel is one of my favorites because it discusses in what continues to be deeply affecting and familiar way to me, the journey of race in America, and how one perceives one's self, relative to how one perceives the rest of the world, and how he sees others perceiving one's self. I wrote about this man's journey relative to my own and others whom I knew while in school. I discovered that all of the black students that participated in my thesis were aware of their race (duh, impossible at a school like NWU, and frankly in a country like this one), and could turn up or down their own race depending on how they want to handle the situation. They could become more or less visible as "black" (however that reads to them) as they saw necessary for a situation. Students talked about the times when they felt like no one could see them for who they are, or moments when professors looked to them to comment on behalf of all black people, or when all they were was a big black thug on the sidewalk. I know about this. I sometimes feel like flaunting my race for others to notice. I've been pissed off and wanted to bark at white folks, to play right into the stereotype of who they think I am, to scare or upset them, just to scratch some itch.

But more often I just want to be myself: whether that person is angry, or tired, or brimming with joy, whether she listens to the Rolling Stones, or Dave Matthews or Miles Davis or Midnight Star, whether she wears giant hoop earrings and a head wrap or a sweater vest and mary janes, I just want to be myself.

Recently, my sweetheart and I went to talk to a caterer about out big day. For a number of reasons we're only partially in the driver's seat in this deal. This caterer is great and we're really excited about working together, but we might be making some compromises, and we have a finite amount of information, which makes us feel less powerful than we might like. The other day we were strategizing about how to get what we wanted from the caterer without unrealistic expectations of how they run their business. He asked me, "do you want to rely on their perception of you as 'The Bride' and voice the things you've just communicated to me with them? It might get us farther."


I wasn't pissed at him--although he might argue otherwise, because in that moment I had a huge emotional reaction. But I could see his motivation through the question: he wants me to be happy and he wants us both to have a wedding we're happy with. Still, I felt like I was being asked to prance around in a tiara and a sash and bat my eyelashes and pout. I was afraid of me being perceived as a princess and he being perceived as The Big Man with The Big (ahem) Checkbook.

Princess. This is a word my father would poke me with, teasing me, whenever I would express what I wanted. Not when I threw temper tantrums, which never happened in my childhood because my mother wouldn't take that shit. I didn't pout and make fusses until I got my way. I wasn't even allowed to express a "my way". I had my first legit job at the age of 15, and before that I only got any money from my folks for doing chores. Nevertheless, my dad would call me "Princess" any time I would talk about how important something was to me, and how I wanted it: things I would prepare to eat; exercise, yoga; the way I wanted to dress. Qualities about myself that I could acknowledge and say "yes, that's me" or "nope, that's not me".

So no, I wasn't prepared to own the stereotype of bride, to cloak myself in it and use it to negotiate with a vendor. I lacked the skills and the safety to be good cop to my sweetheart's bad cop. I was afraid that instead of being able to manipulate them, that I would be manipulated by them: I would be perceived as the thing they could use to get what they wanted, namely our business, Honey and I would get played, and I'd wind up objectified. Ultimately, I didn't play any role by myself, and Honey and I communicated very honestly, and I think we struck a deal we can afford financially, and one we're excited about for our big day. But the idea of prancing into a stereotype really shook me for a while.

Underneath it all, I was freaked out that maybe I am a princess, and that the stereotype of bride that has seemed so abhorrent to me, the woman who demands her attendants wear the same 'do and the same shade of pink nail polish and requires a calligrapher to address her invites and must have an ice sculpture, is lurking somewhere inside me, and something's going to trigger her release. Which is worse, for me to think about myself that I actually am this woman--demanding, unreasonable, immature, self-centered, bratty--or that others might perceive me as such?

I don't know what things black people can and can't do. If you see a black man on ice skates shoulder checking some dude in pursuit of the puck, then you can no longer say black folks don't play hockey, 'cause here's one in the flesh, doin it and doin it well. I do know that trying to put people into boxes usually backfires in a bad way, whether the box is one about racial consciousness, societal propriety, or whether or not you can wear white after Labor Day. Maybe our brains are traitors, taking a useful way of learning about the world around it and carrying it to a place that encourages prejudice, and that life is a constant untying of those knots. Not all who wander are lost, not every black man has kids out of wedlock, and not every woman in a white dress is a bride.


Anonymous said...

I think we have similar parents--I, too, spent my childhood getting called "princess" or other such euphemisms for "spoiled" when I wanted to express all. That shit still stings.

Mrs. How? said...

I am curious about the difference between people and stoves.

When and how do we start to recognize that difference?

And then how do we still manage to create a distinction between "real" people and "predictably generalize-able" people?

What forces keep us believing for an entire lifetime (against all evidence, experience, explanation...) that some people ARE as certain as stoves?