Culture & Race

Elephant parking lots, tribal music, and the problem with stereotypes as stories

“Stories matter. Many stories matter.
Stories have been used to dispossess and to malign,
but stories can also be used to empower and to humanize.
Stories can break the dignity of a people
but stories can also repair that broken dignity.”
– Chimamanda Adichie


I attended a small liberal arts college in the the middle of a cornfield where most students, like me, hadn’t had a great deal of exposure to the world at large.  Many naively highlighted their ignorance in speaking with the international and urban students about their homes.

My roommate, who came from the Bahamas, was asked how long it took her to drive home.  My husband convinced a girl that he rode an elephant to school and parked it in an elephant parking lot.  Others were asked if they wore clothes, drove cars, and watched TV.

As Chimamanda Adichie so eloquently explains in the TedTalk below, my classmates were subscribing to the ‘danger of a single story’, the notion that everyone from one place is the exactly the same.  She tells a story of how her college roommate asked to hear her tribal music and was disappointed when she played Mariah Carey. Adichie admits freely that she has held very similar perspectives throughout her life – believing that the poor are only poor, unable to demonstrate any qualities aside from poverty.  While there are certain contexts in which the simplistic understanding a stereotype provides can be helpful, there are far more contexts where it’s harmful.

While the framework stereotypes offer provide a basic understanding of a culture or place, they grow quickly harmful when we don’t look past them for several reasons:

Stereotypes make us think we understand.  In the current American political wars, I hear both sides regularly assume they understand the ‘other side’ whether it be conservative or liberal.  “They’re so simple-minded and backwards,” the coasters whisper about the inlanders.  “They’re so snobby and elitist,” the inlanders whisper back.  I’ve lived in both places, and can affirm that they’re all far more complex and nuanced and human than each side gives each other credit for.

Stereotypes silence the exceptions.  When a person is gifted to work in a particular area their culture does not typically value, feelings of isolation become a familiar friend. Women in ministry often feel this rub, as do people of color who work in predominately white settings.  Yet God does not gift by gender or race but by individual.   Operating by stereotypes of these groups silences the many who don’t fit in the box they create.

My ESL students surprise me with their exceptions all the time.  I once had a particularly raucous Chinese woman in class.  One of my Latina students gently inquired about this aspect of her personality one day, explaining that most Asian women she knew were much quieter than this particular woman.  The Chinese woman laughed loudly and responded, “They may be quiet on the outside, but they’re LOUD on the inside!”  When we don’t actively work to see past stereotypes, we miss the opportunity to learn more deeply from the exceptions that exist within larger groups.

Stereotypes dismiss the individual.  One of the great gifts of being human is our ability to express individuality.  I don’t speak of this in a fiercely-independent-American-sort-of-way, but with a mind that acknowledges the uniqueness each one of us carries within.  When I taught in a predominately African-American middle school, I would cringe when I overheard white teachers commenting how “black kids are loud” or “that Mexican didn’t understand me” because I knew very well that I had plenty of quiet black students in class and Mexican students who understood every word I said.  The sweeping statements painting a picture of the whole culture dismissed the individuality of the people within it.

Stereotypes perpetuate oppression.  Nowhere is this currently seen more clearly than in the treatment of women around the world.  From unrealistic photo editing to over-princessing little girls to sex trafficking, women are portrayed in grossly stereotyped and oppressive ways.  Similar oppression continues across ethnic, race, and class lines to this day.  Black men face significantly higher rates of arrest than their white counter parts.  Rich boys suffering ‘affluenza’ are given probation instead of jail time for causing a deadly car crash while the poor remain perpetually without defense.

Instead of perpetuating the short-sighted stereotypes, may we be people who seek the deeper stories that give voice instead of silence it and that restore dignity instead of dehumanizing.  

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