Filling the box of difference

March 5, 2010

I walk down the street and I notice difference. I classify it according to what I’ve been taught. I sort, name, and put into categories. I draw tightly defined boxes around others I meet, often before we ever speak. My boxes have been designed by those in power to contain difference out of fear of the other. I have been filling these boxes for many years.

Long ago, my teenage brother was dating a Latina. A relative stumbled over the words she was trying to find to explain her fear to me.  I no longer remember the words; just the inference.  Those kind of girls were likely to be the kind to lead my brother into too-soon sex.  Check! Into the box of Latinas went “fast girls.”

I learned about Indian savages in grade school – they needed to be reformed by Pilgrims and/or defeated by the cowboys and the cavalry.  Oh, there were a few nice ones at Plymouth that shared food at Thanksgiving; they must have been the exception.  Check!  This is what I put into the box called “Indian .” I continued to add similar things into the box throughout high school.  I didn’t pay that much attention to what I was learning because Indians were all dead and gone anyway – right?  A couple of years ago I learned that one of my high school classmates, Charlene Teters, a Spokane Indian, initiated a nation-wide movement against the use of Indians as school sports mascots and founded the National Coalition on Racism in Sports and the Media.   Charlene Teters

I watched Lewis, a black, male student in my middle school. He was the first black student I remember encountering and the only one in my school. I wondered what to put in my box of “black males.”.  He was quiet, studious, and didn’t fit what I was learning about black males in films that took place in ghettos and dealt with hit men, drug dealers, and pimps.  I wonder if somewhere in my mind, like the Indians at Thanksgiving, he was placed as an exception outside the box and therefore, didn’t really count. When I walked down a street and hugged my purse closer to me when I saw a black male, it wasn’t Lewis I was thinking about.

Asian males, according to my box, were either kung-fu types or very smart. Asian women  were demure and quiet unless they were sexual temptresses.  I remember the first time I met a young woman from Thailand who challenged all my perceptions about Asian women. It was again, easy, to think of her as the exception because I knew so few Asian Americans.

What did I notice about white people? I didn’t think about white people.  We were just the “norm;” unremarkable because we were everywhere. And, of course, we were all different. I never put white people in a box because we were individuals! Each person, be they a jerk or a wonderful person, was just that; not someone signifying what all whites were like.

It pains me to see what I have done and how it has impacted my behavior over the years.  Most importantly, now that I do understand the impact of those boxes, I can take action for change.

Who do you see when you walk down the street and what boxes have you been trained to fill?

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