Wednesday, November 5, 2008

RICK VON FELDT: Prejudice and Stereotypes

1. What are some of the things people who don't know you very well tend to think about you?

When I used to work in Singapore – I would sometimes go out to coffee with my assistant. That poor woman had to deal with my “office demeanor” – which often times would be short, impatient and rather direct. After a few cups of coffee, and taking time to really talk, I would usually ask her about how the team was doing – and if there was any thoughts about me she was hearing. I was always surprised to hear her call me “fierce.” I don’t see myself as fierce. I also think that until people get to know me – they wonder what in the world I am doing living a single life. I think the assume there must be something wrong with me – and that something bad in my life happened, causing me to want to live alone all these years.

2. Which of these assumptions are true?

I don’t think I am fierce. Impatient? Yes. And ok – if certain principles in life are violated – then I can get fierce – at least in my stare. But I rarely erupt in anger. I sometimes like to “grrr” at other cars on the highway. There I can be fierce. Last week, when I was in Kansas, my parents would often fight on where they would sit in the car. They would argue on who would get to be in the back seat. Perhaps that is a reflection of people who do know me – and my fierceness?

3. Which stereotypes about your country are true about you, if any?

I suppose I have to start with what I think are the main stereotypes: thoughtlessly optimistic, sometimes shallow, generally US centric and not thinking about the world. We can be seen as fundamentalists – based upon not well thought out ideas or based upon religion. We are thought to be consumptive and wasteful. We act sometimes before we think. We are more interesting in what is possible versus what should not be.

Am I like that?

I think I do embody the optimism of America. I like to think about “yes I can” vs. “no – we can’t do that.” I have been weaned on the idea that hard work can get you anything. I don’t take no for an answer and I will question, but yes, sometimes on emotion rather than thought. I don’t think I am shallow and if anything – too intense in general.

I think what would have also been interesting with this question is that each of us should have provided to the others what our perspectives of stereotypes were for their countries. I think I will go back and do that in the comment section. For example, I have some interesting ideas for Peter as an Australian….

4. What are situations in which you find yourself to be prejudiced?

I am prejudiced at times. I admit it. For example, I stereotype – and am predjudiced about drivers in California. I believe, and am right about 95% of the time that the slowest and wrong drivers on the highway are Hispanics or Asian women wives. I stereotypically blame this on lack of confidence or skill. It drives me crazy – and I talk to them when I pass them crazily in my car in the fast lane. Or rather – when they are in the fast lane – and I have to go around them!

When I returned to the USA – I had to once again adjust to the idea in America that you are not allowed to see color. In Asia – people would describe me as a Caucasian. That is what I was. It was a way to designate. That could have add on connotations. But with so much ethnic diversity – it was sometimes easier to understand people based upon a starting point. Of course, it also irked me when I was described as an American. And with that – came lots of stereotypes of silly Americans or American expats that hung out at the American Club.

Last week, I was reminded about how some of these predjudices form. I was back home with my family. I had taken a few of them out for lunch. In the route to drive to the Thai restaurant, I managed to take wrong turn – and headed incorrectly in to East Topeka. Topeka, like many Midwest towns either self segregate – or simply do it economically, which often achieves the same result. (Oops. You see – that is also a stereotype – some of which is true – but of course, not completely.)

As we started to drive into these neighborhoods, in which lawns were not cut, debris not removed and houses were not well kept, horror crossed the eyes of my families face. One of them even made a surprising comment with racial overtones. I was surprised at their reaction. Yet – I reminded myself that 20 years ago – I had the same perspective. This type of neighborhood in Topeka meant either Hispanic or Black neighborhoods. It was still true – but somehow – thinks looked less dangerous to me. I am not sure if this is because while living in Asia – I made new associations that poor did not equal bad or dangerous. I replaced some of that fear with empathy. But that is not what I was brought up to believe. While my Germanic upbringing has served me well in worth ethic – it can also breed intolerance to those who don’t work hard and make something of themselves. That intolerance gets mixed with fear – and expectations – and for many – nasty stereotypes develop.

Let me recount one more story that is fresh on my mind. It happened tonight, on the eve of Barack Obama becoming the president-elect of the US. About an hour before Obama was declared the winner of the election, I was finishing up at the gym. (If I have to watch election results, I might as well be on the treadmill at the same time!)

In the men’s locker room, I had finished showering, and was putting on my clothes. Usually, most people in the gym only talk to people they know. And since this is not my purpose in the gym, I keep my head down, do my work out and get out of there. No conversation.

A man on the nearby bench blurted out to me, “Well – that seems to have ended pretty quick tonight.” I looked around, and not seeing anyone else, realized he was talking to me.

“Pardon me?” I said.

“The election is already over. He won.”

I nodded.

“Now what are we going to do?” he said.

I was surprised that a stranger was talking to me. And even more surprised that he was asking provoking questions about politics. I was trying to think about how to handle the question. I was wearing jeans. My hair is longer. I certainly didn’t “look” the McCain (stereotype). Why was he saying this to me?

I decided to take the high road – and just get out of it. I responded, “It is time for a new America.”

He simply huffed and said, “We have been paying them to have babies for twenty years. Now we are going to pay for it.”

I was surprised. Shocked. I didn’t know what to say. I was tempted to spit something back at him, but I knew that it was a wrong place to debate. And moreover – he was a person not worth convincing.

I said nothing.

But as I drove home, I played the conversation over in my head – and tried to realize where his prejudice and perspective was coming from.

I can go more into my thought. But my bottom line realization is that the man had fear in his eyes. In his mind, his white world of supremecy was slowly coming to an end. And for him – and many Americans with wrong impressions about diversity in their minds – they are filled with fear.

I had to fortunately experience to be a diverse person living in a diverse world. Young people today are growing up in the same way.

But older generations of self (and this is a generalization and a stereotype) segregation haven’t learned that the world is a mix.

5. To you, what value is there in stereotypes?

Several of my author colleagues said that there is not much value in predjudice. While I agree that it can lead to many negative things – I think there is some value.

Sometimes, to me, it is like starting out with a hypothesis. You start with a set of assumptions and then your job is to either validate or dispel them. I have a sterotype that Asian women of 45 years of age here in California are slow drives that only come out at 10:30 am. I would hope that I find them out here kicking my butt in the fast lane. Generally, my sterotype is true. And I cheer them on when the buck the trend.

I stereotype that people from the Midwest have a certain set of “land values.” I go about validating if it is true and what is not true.

I believe, whether we like it or not – we all discover other people in this way. What is wrong is when we judge and don’t optimistically look to validate both sides.

I will give one more example.

Today, I needed to go in to ATT to get a new USB wireless card for my computer. I walked in to the store, and walked up to the man behind the counter who was free. He had scruffy facial hair. His polo shirt was way too tight to cover his massive 250 lb frame. He was not Caucasian. He had an ear ring.

Whether I wanted to or not – I had instant perspectives in what I thought he might be – both good and bad.

To me – challenge is to have those stereotypes – and then go about dispelling them or proving them true.

Isn’t that what we do as humans?
Is that right or wrong?

(drop me a note for more on my interactions with this particular chap – and whether my stereotype held true or not.)

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