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Stamping out Stereotypes

June 28, 2013

Somehow I have failed.

Though he spent the first 7 years of his life living in another culture, friends with Koreans and Kiwis and Turks, my son has an awful habit of making gross generalizations about ethnic groups.

One might call him racist.

He used to think there were two languages in the world. I distinctly remember our first furlough in America and his encounter with Sesame Street. Hearing the unrecognizable conversations in Spanish, he spun around, wide-eyed curiosity staring right at me, pleading for me to make sense of this newfound discovery. He spent the rest of our furlough asking anyone who looked remotely different what language they spoke.

Nine years later he is embarrassingly, stubbornly Americentric: he thinks the English language is called American.

He also says things like “konichiwa” to all Asians, believes Ireland only has sheep and beer, and the British are all things sophisticated (including our friends who are NOT British, but DO have a chess table.)

When he got a data plan and Instagram became his life, he got worse. Much worse. Life became distilled into pithy phrases of reductionism. And, while he flushes red when corrected, his ignorance persists.

His ethnocentrism ignites my justice gland. It has become one of those kid things I’ve determined to tackle with a vengeance, not graduating him to adulthood until it has been rooted out and buried.

Here’s the plan, concocted in a moment of spontaneous brilliance and in front of his friend, an added bonus: every time he makes one of his stereotypical statements, he has to do research on that culture and report to the family. Perfect for the child who turns off his brain during summer, who loathes reading and writing. (I would choose differently for my girls, who do research on various things all the time out of an unquenchable desire for knowledge.)

Unfortunately, as every mother knows, as soon as you institute correction for a kid, they hold you accountable too. Which is how I found myself learning about New Jersey last week.

As it turns out, he gets a modicum of those ridiculous statements from me too. Shame.

We were eating pizza on Father’s Day, people watching from our sidewalk table. For the most part, there isn’t a whole lot of “stand-outs” in our Colorado town. Which is why this couple not only caught my eye, but made me smile. To my shame, New Jersey came to mind. I have since learned, Guido is what I meant, but that too would have been a stereotype, no?

I debated describing this couple, but that would only reinforce the stereotype. Needless to say, I made some comment about them not belonging and that they were probably from New Jersey. Bam! They were on me. All 3 kids exclaimed, “Research project!”

This morning I began typing New Jersey st…. and Google knew. Apparently, I am not alone.

Excuse me not. Because I just learned that not only are our chess-loving friends not British, he is from New Jersey!

Not to pardon myself, but I have done a little studying on this topic and have learned some differences between generalizations, made from data, norms, and not meant to malign, and stereotypes, made with the distinct purpose of harming and disparaging its subject.

While my son and I may not mean to denigrate New Jerseyans and Brits, there is a fine line in making sweeping statements of groups in general and speaking ignorantly about individuals.

Are all gay men flamboyantly marching in parades half-clothed?
Do all Christians refrain from dancing, cards, and alcohol?
Are all homeless persons using donations on cigarrettes and liquor?

John 7:24 “Do not judge by appearances, but judge by what is right.”

To know what is right, we must treat each individual with the dignity and value they deserve as God’s creation. And that probably requires more than making a passing judgement based on Instagram, Twitter, and a couple strolling downtown.

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