Thursday, April 3, 2008

Deconstruct the Stereotype or Perspective is not fact 2

Racism; it comes in all kinds of forms from all kinds of people. Here is someone who wasn't aware that she was one of them.

Disclaimer: I admit that I've expressed some pretty graphic opinions about my race (and eventually some others, and then anything that was human), and, in jovial moments, have said some light-hearted racist jokes amongst friends. But, I don't (consciously) possess any kind of stereotypes or narrow-minded views toward any race at all. The people I speak of in these posts seriously hold these convictions.

First, let me show some aspects about her.

[Laura] was a mannerful, genial 27-year-old receptionist hired by the secretary of the president of our store. A receptionist, of course, sits and directs customer calls to the correct departments (linens, furniture, etc.). She had come from Honduras a little more than a couple of years prior to getting this job, and her English communication skills were still very basic. So, she often forwarded calls to me, who worked in bed linens, from customers who were asking for a salesperson in the carpet department. This still happened a handful of times after I told her where I worked, but she eventually got better at things.

[Laura] was also a devout Christian. Now, there are many kinds of Christians and I don't know which kind she belonged to, if she belonged to any one or some at all, but she has expressed some of her religious views to me.

Many times during our lunch hour, she's expressed, through frenetic Spanish, occasional English and gesticulations, stories of people she's seen get possessed by the Devil and exorcised by a priestly figure of some sort. I told her once that I listen to heavy metal, and she told me that it was bad for me in all sorts of ways, and then asked me with a scowling face if I listen to Ozzy Osbourne (which I don't). Finally, she once pointed at one of the antique paintings the store sells and told me that it creeped her out because it was either painted by devil worshippers or was a picture of devil worshippers. I forget which one. What I didn't forget was that it was simply a painting of two Asian men in Old Century wardrobe, sitting and having tea. These strike me as stemming from "A Scarlet Letter" a more conservative point of view.

At any rate, one day, we (me, a friend Gwendy, [Laura] and another friend) all sat in an office, socializing after lunch. Laura then asked Gwendy, in Spanish, if I was African or American, which in itself was a bit offensive since I was sitting right next to her and she could've just asked me. Gwendy told her I was American, but I butted in and explained to her that I'm not from Africa, but do have ancestors from different parts of the continent. Because of this, she then asked me if I had diamonds.

As we all went back to work, I, at first, laughed it off after telling her no with a bit of an offended face and said to myself that she simply didn't know better. But it occurred to me that if she said this sort of thing to someone else, they may act out in anger or even violence towards her. So, I went over to her at the receptionist desk and tried to explain me having African ancestors does not mean I bring diamonds from Africa, but gestures and 2nd grade English could not convey the message properly to her. Additionally, every time I pointed to the back of my hand to indicate my skin color while talking to her, she would nod her head yes and say "I like diamonds". So I had to search for Wendy to translate.

I went into Wendy's office, went on the selling floor (the back and front of it), but could not find her. Meanwhile, every time I passed by the desk, [Laura] would repeat "I like diamonds" and smile. So, finally, out of frustration, I said to her "Dios sabe tu mala!" which was the incorrect version of "God thinks you're bad!" I'm sure He really didn't, but it was the only way to communicate to her that she did something wrong. Eventually, I found Wendy and got her to explain in Spanish the meaning of what she said and why I said the God comment. The matter was resolved, with her conclusively saying "No, no, I love black people!".

I wasn't sure at the time whether I should be offended or not. She did stereotype me, but the stereotype seemed to be borne of ignorance. Is it her fault her mind is narrow? Sometimes, that is a self-awareness that only someone else can apply. Perhaps this situation can be a seedling which will spread into other perspectives she possesses.

3 comments:

  1. The Disturbed OneApril 3, 2008 at 11:05 AM

    I couldn't help but laugh at what she was saying. It really is just ignorance. She most likely learned it from family and friends.

    I remember when I attended this program called workforce 2000, they had a group of french students come to meet us and we could explain what workforce was about. The group I sat with was alright, until they asked my friends and I if we carried guns.

    We looked at one another. I am spanish, C.J. is black, John is spanish and the other guy (cant remember his name) is from the Caribbean Islands, basically... black.

    Did they ask us because we were minorities? They said no. They heard that all american teenagers carried guns (the media gave them that info). Then they all proceed (in their own way) to say they LOVE black people. They all looked at C.J. as they said this (I think it was because he stands 6'5" and weighed about 245).

    We tried to move on and forget about the little remark, but we were all just a bit offended. We also tried to assure them that it is not the norm for american teens to carry firearms.

    I dont think they believed us.

    Anyway, It couldnt hurt to just spread a lil knowledge. That way, they wont walk around completely ignorant of anyone elses culture. And maybe it will help them grow on a personal level not to base these assumptions on what they hear from people who most likely never met anyone from your culture.

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  2. i think you handled the situation pretty well. i work at a refugee center - work with and also serve people from over 30 countries. and even though i tell people all the time ... "hey, it's visceral. if your gut is responding to something as being rude ... take a step back, and it might also be a cultural misunderstanding." does that mean i don't flip when people tell me they've heard filipino women make good wives? or that asian people are so smart?? or my favorite, that as a daughter of an immigrant - i don't deserve to take all the canadian children's places in university (I AM frickin' canadian, I want to say)... i like the approach you took ... open her eyes a bit, tell her how it might be offensive, and spend some time with her, so she knows you as a person ... best way to combat it all. build relationships. that's what i try to do. like your blog - i'll be by again.

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  3. Don't Feed The PixiesApril 4, 2008 at 4:41 AM

    The other day i was talking to an older person about my friend Banaris and they asked "Is he foreign?" - i was shocked at their ignorance and assumption...but then i remembered how much our perception of people has changed and is continuing to change from generation to generation - my grandparents generation hated all things German, even as recently as the 80s the gay community was feared. Some of this is just from cultural ignorance - some is just plain hate.

    I think your response was perfect - showing tolerance, understanding and attempting to educate. Most people, when they say these things, are being ignorant - so the best we can hope for is to show them how to be better

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