I remember my mother always emphasizing how important it was for me to perform well at school. I would complain about the pressure she put on me to look nice and always get good grades when all my other peers seemed to just be enjoying their childhood and unaware of any burden to be consistently successful. She would say, “Remember, you’re the little black girl in the class. They are always looking at you.”
Talk right. Dress well. Say something intelligent. Repeat. This was the recipe I was given to ensure that stereotypes would never apply to me. While I can’t deny the truth in my mother’s words, I have begun to realize that actively avoiding the negative stereotypes of one’s race doesn’t necessarily lead to others having better perceptions of a race.
This reality became most obvious to me once I came to Princeton. I grew up thinking that the people who possessed any qualities of the negative black stereotypes were doomed to a life of underestimation and scorn. When I came here I saw so many multi-dimensional black people, some who in fact had the loud black girl stereotype or wore the hip-hop attire of a rapper. I was surprised and equally disappointed to realize, for the first time, that I myself had fallen into the trap of stereotyping. By consciously rejecting the stereotype, I was actually doing more to perpetuate it in my mind.
After reading a blog article about Kanye West’s ambition for his video “Bound 2”, I got to thinking about the implications of owning a stereotype. West commented that the tendency of black rappers to wear expensive clothes and jewelry was an attempt to appear on par with their white peers. This insecurity highlights the attempt black people everywhere are making to legitimize themselves in world that is determined to confine us to our negative stereotype. Despite the attempt to look nice, rappers’ attire proves counterproductive as people still invalidate their success even further by mocking their gold chains and expensive attire. While you may think rappers and college students have nothing in common, the same issue of legitimizing our success is a problem that all black people face. We feel the pressure to always prove to people that we are not our stereotypes. It can often cause a lot of anxiety in our personal lives. While so many people of different demographics are so quick to run away from their stereotype, what if instead we decided to own it? Think about how powerful it is to own a stereotype, to look someone in the face and have all the qualities of a stereotype and still be capable of accomplishing things that contradict the box that society places you in.
The biggest problem with stereotypes is not the stereotype itself, but the fact that people are incapable of seeing past it. If you are a black sassy woman, you have nothing significant to say. If you are Asian and good at math, you are incapable of dancing well. If you are a curvaceous Hispanic woman who likes to wear nice clothes, you care about nothing except getting men and being a homemaker. If you are a black man and wear baggy pants and hoodies, all you care about is getting chicks and buying gold chains. Society has taught us that it is near impossible to have binary qualities. We are either our stereotype or their version of “right”.
Consciously rejecting a stereotype generally leads to conformity to the idealistic American suburban lifestyle, stating that there is only one normal way to act and live. By saying that there is only one option to correctly speak, act and dress is allowing everyone in society to dismiss the voice of people who do not follow that normative lifestyle. Reading Morgan Jerkins’s article made me think of how quickly her friend was willing to dismiss her comments simply because she had showed some “sass.” Morgan could have been in the middle of saying something very important, but her friend was so preoccupied by her “sass” that everything that came out her mouth was dismissed as simply a rant from a sassy black woman. The sad part about my whole revelation at Princeton was that I was genuinely surprised that so many smart black kids fit the “negative” black stereotype I had tried to reject my whole life by wearing “preppy” clothes; I’d tried to keep my voice low in conversations and always made sure to speak with a vocabulary that suggested that I’d opened a book recently. I have realized that this was not because there were no black people who could have hip-hop clothes or an urban accent and still be intelligent, but because the media and society at large is quick to dismiss the ideas of those who don’t have your average suburban American middle class characteristics. People who have these stereotypical qualities tend to be depicted as flat, secondary characters or comic reliefs characters in the media. They are hardly portrayed as dynamic individuals with real thoughts or skills.
Regardless of what I do, people with preconceived notions about other races will always find a way to place me in a box. If I raise my voice ever so slightly, suddenly I’m aggressive and sassy. Think of the picture of Barack and Michelle Obama at Nelson Mandela’s memorial. Despite being, almost definitely, the most academically accomplished First Lady of the most influential country in the world, the series of pictures incited comments of her being the stereotypical angry black woman. The point is no matter what you do, it is impossible to run from a stereotype that people insist applies to you.
It is for that reason that I think by owning a stereotype you actually have more impact on changing the stereotypical thoughts of society. I am not saying that people should force themselves to fit a stereotype, I am simply saying that if you have qualities of a stereotype you should own it. You should own it and force people to confront the limitations of their thought processes. Force them to see that your stereotype does not define you and that you are capable of having qualities of your stereotype and being so much more.