Tag Archives: stereotypes

I Hate My Skin

Trish made the following comment on my post “Asians Are Smarter,” which I’m publishing with her permission. “I so disliked the title of this post that I almost didn’t read it. But, now I am glad I did. Your blog is certainly touching some nerves with me. My husband and I are Caucasian. We live in Trenton. We are the parents of a six year old African American boy. Before we adopted him, six years ago, I feel like I had considered every aspect of raising a child here. Each day, tiny little things happen to remind me that I cannot ignore race. Our son is reminding us too. His questions and comments sometimes take me by surprise. “I hate my skin!” he has said! That is just one of many things that really make me stop and think hard about raising our child. Just recently, a friend told me she purposely uses the words Caucasian and African American with her children. I have started doing the same. I am so thankful that I have many African American friends I can talk to and a few excellent books I can consult. Their advice has been invaluable.”

If reading “I hate my skin!” is painful for me, hearing it must be devastating for Trish and her husband. No child that young should have learned to hate anything about himself. But how to repair damage that shouldn’t have happened in the first place?

An image from the PBS Newshour sticks in my mind: Gwen Ifill interviewing John Kerry. I was struck by the balance: two intelligent, attractive people—a black woman and a white man—equally knowledgeable. Margaret Warner or Judy Woodruff interviewing President Obama offers the same balance. But could a six-year-old appreciate what I see as ideal relationships, where gender and skin color are lovely variations and intelligence trumps all?

I wonder if Trish’s son can explain why he hates his skin. Wanting to look like an adopting mom and dad is less ominous than experiencing playground taunts or being told that skin color implies certain characteristics. Or is it possible that a six-year-old is making such associations on his own?

At Trenton High, I was surrounded by such a variety of black people that it was impossible to link color to behavior. In fact, the one assumption I brought—that all black staff members would work tirelessly for the success of their black students—was shattered. But recently I’ve been trying to help a black friend in crisis. Her children can spare neither time nor money. Instead of pulling together as a team, they scream accusations at one another while their mother lies helpless. Fearful and frustrated myself, I find myself suddenly seeing black—linking color to this selfish, dysfunctional behavior. I know better. I hate myself. But when the hostile, irresponsible, loud faces around me are all black, I make an association.

I need to restore balance, to schedule lunch with my other black friends. It hasn’t helped that I was raised on stereotypes, that I live in a mostly white community, nor that I’m writing a blog about race. Thankfully, I continue to have long chats by phone with my friend who’s in crisis—who, though physically incapacitated, remains strong, capable, and loving. But I shouldn’t need such reassurance. Skin color, character, and behavior are not correlated. I know that. But if I make false connections, might a six-year-old?

The “for a” Stereotype

While thinking about dangerous pronouns, I was alerted to an article in The New York Times about microaggressions.  “Microaggressions,” I learned, are “common verbal, behavioral, and environmental indignities, whether intentional or unintentional, that communicate hostile or negative slights to marginalized groups.”  One example in The Times article, however, “You’re really pretty … for a dark-skin girl,” seemed to me not “micro” but outright racist – because of the words “for a.”

We hear and use “for a” even as children on the playground. “Your hair is awfully long for a boy” or “You’re pretty strong for a girl.” Do we even notice the stereotypes about boys and girls in these comparisons? No, probably we accept them. Instead, we focus on the criticism or compliment directed to the individuals in these sentences. Perhaps we should also think about what the “for a” says about our expectations for boys and girls – the box “for a” puts them in.

A feminist talking with a male acquaintance who expresses sympathy for her cause says, “You’re pretty smart for a man.” Does this remark raise eyebrows? I doubt it. She’s putting men down but also satirizing the stereotype of men as insensitive, macho types. Besides, men are so powerful already that no one needs to stick up for them. But again, what does the “for a” reveal about her expectations for men?

Conversely, if a white person says to a black woman “You’re really pretty,” is the “for a” implied? I was told it was politically incorrect to say “Obama is so articulate” because it implied “for a black man.” I was perplexed. In my mind I was comparing Obama to George W. Bush. No race imagined or implied.  I guess I could get in trouble if I said “You said that so well” to an Asian or Latino person, even if I meant the clarity of his or her reasoning, not the ability to speak English.

It’s hard to think of a compliment that isn’t really a judgment, a comparison to a group or norm. “You sing beautifully” implies better than others.  It’s unfortunate if someone hears an unintended and limiting “for a” in that compliment, but such is the burden of our history of discrimination.   Certainly we can and should stop using “for a” aloud. The goal, if we are ever to achieve a post-racial society, is for all of us to stop thinking it.

How Are Stereotypes Perpetuated?

How are stereotypes perpetuated, especially among children? This question came to me while I was watching “American Promise” on PBS’s POV . The documentary follows two middle-class, African-American boys from New York City whose parents enroll them at The Dalton School, a prestigious private (and mostly white) school. It turns out that African-American males have difficulty at Dalton, so a group of black parents gather to discuss the problem. A father notes that both white and black parents have the same issueskids forgetting homework and losing thingsbut he says that blacks have an extra burden in this country. Speaking about the boys, he says, “The struggle they’re going to have to face in reality is the way that people look at them and fear them when they see them because everyday you’re inundated with this marketing that a dark black face is dangerous, so watch out.”

This quotation confuses me. First, what constitutes “this marketing” that inundates you every day? Is it photos in the news of black people who’ve been arrested? I’ve heard the complaint that more photos are published of black suspects than white suspects, but since I watch only the PBS NewsHour and refuse to read yellow journalism, I haven’t seen “this marketing.” Can anyone explain it to me?

Second, what is the stereotype? That a dark black face is dangerous? Or that people will look at a dark black face and fear it? To me, the distinction is serious. I can imagine black parents warning their sons that people may be afraid of them. Such a warning is not something I’d recommend since it perpetuates the stereotype, but I can understand parents wanting to prepare and protect their children. And eventually the children are likely to see evidence. In “American Promise” two taxi cabs pull away when the drivers realize that a group of four black teenagersnot just the one who’d flagged the cabwant a ride.

But I cannot imagine either black parents or white parents (except the most overtly racist) telling a child that a dark black face is dangerous. So how is this fear perpetuated? How does it arise?

I am not denying that the fear exists. The fate of Trayvon Martin and Jordan Davis and stories I hear from black friends are evidence. And I believe I watched the fear acknowledged by the producers of “Who Wants to Be a Millionaire” when Cedric the Entertainer replaced Meredith Vieira as host. The first contestants were, in order, black males, white males, a black female, and finally a white female – and she seemed hand-picked, an ebullient actress. I’m almost positive that more than a month passed before an average white female contestant appeared.

What can we do to change “the way that people look at them and fear them”?