I think that all of us have been victims of stereotyping, which at its best is disrespectful and at its worst leads to low self-esteem and bias. I was always seen as a jock, and lots of people (not my friends) thought that meant I wasn’t very smart. Not true. But that treatment often led me to self-doubt and imposter syndrome. And while I’m not sure which comes first, prejudice or stereotyping – or if that even matters – I know first-hand that we all do it to others and we all receive it as well. It can be a harmful experience either way. I remember one time in college when I was working in the kitchen of our student union. I saw that a couple of students were playing chess, so I watched for a while, appreciating their skills. One of the students asked, with what I thought was a dismissive tone, if I knew the rules of chess. When I said that I had played for many years, he was surprised. He challenged me to a game. It didn’t turn out the way he expected it to.
Using stereotypes can lead to profiling and bigotry. Think about times you may have seen someone walking through your neighborhood who doesn’t look like you. What has your first thought been? Be honest! I live on an almost all-white street, and when an African American family moved in down the street, I was surprised. Not because they didn’t belong there, but because it was something new and unexpected. Was my response based on my inner bias? I hope not. But it is important to always check there. Too many people respond badly when they think something, or someone doesn’t “belong” in their neighborhood or local store. Too many people are followed by security because they don’t match the usual clientele. Too many people are arrested or shot because they are stereotyped.
This is what I think Jesus might have meant, at least in part, about judgment. We make judgments every day, so the act itself isn’t wrong. What makes it wrong, I think, is when it leads us to inappropriate or dangerous behavior. When we make laws based on our biases – when we treat people differently because they are not like us. Even seemingly innocent stereotypes like Robert Southey’s ridiculous poem (What are little boys made of? Snips and snails & puppy dog’s tails. What are young women made of? Sugar and spice and all things nice) can alter the way we understand one another. Saying things like “Boys will be boys” or “you know how those people are” or “what do you expect from _____?” can support our already false ideas about different nationalities, races, cultures, sexes, and genders. Stereotypes do nothing to make the world better.
It may be hard to do at first, this approach to seeing people for who they are and not for who we assume they are, but it is well worth the effort. Before we jump to conclusions, it might be helpful to find out who they are and what they believe and how they think. People are pretty amazing, if we just stop talking and listen.
Prayer – God of diversity and wonder, You have made each one of us to be amazing. We would learn that if we gave each other a chance. Amen.
Today’s art is a print by Sara Cwynar that explores photographic stereotypes (2017).