To Be a Stereotype or Not

I was at work last night. I’m a parking ramp cashier. My job is basically customer service, that and taking people’s money so that I’ll let them out.

I don’t tend to react too much to anything that customers do or say. I just put on my blank professional face and do my job.

So, last night, a car pulled up with two young Asian guys. They were likely college students as the biggest increase in the University population has been Asians (Is that a stereotype?). I only mention this to give context to the interaction. The passenger leaned over and said, “Can I ask you a question?” “Sure,” I say. The question he asks me is, “Do you like to eat hunted deer and rabbit meat?”

That amused me. He was stereotyping me. Part of me would’ve liked to have asked in return, “Do you eat raw fish and clubbed dolphins?”

It doesn’t bother me when people try to stereotype me because they usually fail to put me into the right stereotype. Yes, I’m a working class Iowan. Yes, I wear Carhartt clothing. Yes, I’m of German ancestry. But, no, I wasn’t raised in nor have I ever lived in any rural area. No, I’ve never hunted nor owned a gun. And, no, i haven’t spent my whole life in Iowa, much less the Midwest. I’m less of an Iowan than many people I know. Still, I know people who have lived here their entire lives and they don’t particularly seem any different than people I’ve known in entirely separate regions.

I may look like a rural Iowan, but I spent much of my life growing up as an upper middle class city boy. I suppose I’m comfortable looking working class because my mom raised me with a working class sensibility. I’m not interested in standing out. That makes me a more typical Midwesterner. In Iowa, there is no clear distinction between someone who grew up in a rural area and someone who grew up in an urban area, especially as in both cases it is the same Standard American English. This also might relate to how Midwestern farmers have a long history of ensuring their children are well educated, including often sending them off to college. This seems particularly evident living in Iowa City, a college town, where urban and rural populations mix freely as you only have to drive to the edge of town to find farm fields.

Of course, none of my family were farmers. I’d have to look back to the 1800s to maybe find an ancestor who farmed. But I can’t offhand say for certain that I know of even distant relatives who were farmers. However, my mom’s family is as close as the Midwest gets to what is stereotypically known as rednecks.

I don’t mind stereotypes all that much, except when they directly relate to prejudice. I wasn’t worried about suffering oppression by Asian college students and so it was a harmless incident. Sometimes stereotypes are even accurate, and some people even embrace stereotypes in pride and defiance. As for me, if someone assumed I was a depressed artsy intellectual, then they’d be right. But I’ve never tried to fit into a stereotype. I don’t dress like a depressed artsy intellectual. I do carry a backpack which has caused some people to think I was a college student because after all this is a college town, but I have no college degree.

I have no grand point to the post. I was just amused by how a foreign student perceived me in terms of how he perceived Americans and specifically Midwesterners. Many Americans, particularly from the coasts, often stereotype Midwesterners, not entirely dissimilar to how Southerners are stereotyped. I suppose people from other parts of the world see America through the lense of the American MSM that is mostly produced in coastal big cities. To a foreigner like an Asian, I could imagine the Midwest is largely known through movies: Wizard of Oz, Field of Dreams, etc (maybe some of the movies and tv shows of Superman’s youth; and who knows what else). It is quite likely that, to a foreigner, Iowa might as well as be Oklahoma, Tennessee or North Dakota.

Stereotypes are odd things. They aren’t always incorrect. Even when they are caricatures, there can be elements of generalized truths. Are there many Iowans who hunt and eat what they hunt? Sure. But stereotypes tend to go way beyond such simple probabilistic correlations. Even if I did hunt, what would that say about me? Not much.

This is relevant to my recent thinking. One book I finished reading a while back is Whistling Vivaldi by Claude M. Steele. It is about stereotype threat which is a heavily researched issue. One thing that is clear is that stereotypes can have very powerful results, even when there is otherwise no active effort of prejudice and oppression. Stereotypes have a way of becoming pervasive in all aspects of society and become embedded deep within our thinking, both in the thinking of those who benefit from it and those who suffer from it.

Did that Asian guy think I was less smart, less worldly or less worthy in some way simply because I looked like a lower class rural person? I’m sure that would be a common element to such a stereotype. How far away is that stereotype from that of the redneck, the hillbilly and white trash? For those who are perceived in that light their entire life, what impact would stereotype threat have on them? For those who live in a society that has treated them that way and expected that of them, what kind of life would that lead to? The structural prejudice directed at poor rural whites isn’t all that different from the structural racism directed at poor urban blacks.

Asians come to America and they don’t really understand the history behind such stereotypes. Many white and/or upper class Americans also don’t understand. Stereotypes are so powerful because of this lack of understanding.

4 thoughts on “To Be a Stereotype or Not

  1. I think you’re awesome. I really do. So much so, if we lived closer, I would enjoy having a cup of coffee with you. Like you, I don’t fit very well in any specific box. I’m 53, liberal( left of center mostly), a mother to a gay son and a staunchly conservative son and a very open-minded daughter. I’m a nana, divorced, hated, loved, in love, actress, retired developing indie film director, born to working class parents, raised in the military, British mother, American father, Portuguese maternal great-grandmother, Native American paternal great grandmother, 8th grade drop-out, 14 yr old child bride, recovering alcoholic and a non-traditional college student majoring education. I want to be the mentor that wasn’t there for me.

    Let me know if you ever pass through Atlanta.

    • Now I’m the awesome stereotype. I’m feeling threatened to live up to your praise. I went from being a rural hick to being awesome. I’m feeling stereotype confusion. Oh dear me.

      Yes, people are complex. Your life has more diverse aspects than my own. In terms of chosen lifestyle, my personal world is rather simple. The less simple part is how I ended up where I find myself. A somewhat meandering path. Nothing extreme, but enough that I don’t fit into many of the more popular stereotypes. My life sounds boring and yours sounds like an adventure, probably more ‘adventure’ than my depressed self could handle.

      I was thinking that I’m a rural Iowan poseur. However, I come by my rural working class credentials through honest means. I’ve never thought of myself that way, but I’m genuinely comfortable with that world by way of familiarity. My mom’s family hunts, I shot my uncle’s gun when I was a kid, and it isn’t unusual for me to eat some meat a coworker hunted.

      Some of my experience of rural working class life comes from around your neck of the woods. My high school ‘redneck’ friend was similar to my mom’s family, rural people who moved into a big city and yet maintained their family tradition of gun-owning and hunting. Columbia SC is similar to Iowa City in that the rural and urban don’t seem entirely far apart. That kind of mixing is a commonality with the South and the Midwest.

      I don’t know how all other regions are in this respect. I have a friend who lives in Portland. I asked her how rural people speak in Oregon and she didn’t have a clue. She apparently doesn’t socialize or interact much with non-urbanites. It would be hard for me in Iowa City to avoid all rural people.

      I can’t speak too much about Georgia either. I’ve only briefly visited there and that was a long time ago. I suppose it isn’t extremely different from South Carolina. If I’m ever back down that way again and close to Atlanta, I’ll contact you and you can broaden my experience or at least offer me a cup of coffee.

  2. I was thinking why I was humorously thinking of myself as rural Iowan poseur. The stereotype simply doesn’t apply.

    I wasn’t born in Iowa. I actually only spent four years here as a kid. Half of my life has been spent in other states. However, much of my early life was spent in one Midwestern state or another. More to the point, I’ve never more than briefly lived outide of a city and even then it was only to work at a YMCA camp, although a YMCA camp in the rural Bible Belt is quite an experience.

    Most important of all, I wasn’t raised in a working class lifestyle, despite my mom inculcating in me some of her working class sensibility that she was raised with. My parents both were college educated and my dad was a professor. The only reason I don’t have a degree is because I chose to drop out. I didn’t lack intelligence, suwpport, money or opportunity. As a young adult, I had some basic sense of the relatively privileged life I was born into.

    Internal issues such as depression have held me back. That is no insignificant thing to struggle with. Even so, it has been my demon to struggle ith. I wish I lived in a society that offered more help to those with psychiatric conditions, but there are far worse fates. I could imagine the struggle with not just being depressed but also being severely impoverished, unemployed or worse still homeless.

    I’ve alwas had this protective distance from being working class. It isn’t really who I am. I am ‘working class’ in a wealthy well-educated liberal town which is nothing like being poor in an impoverished rural region or poor in a crime-ridden inner city. Plus, my parents have money, even if I have little of my own. If my life went downhill, my arents probably would take me in or offer me assistance. When my parents die, I mght even get some inheritance.

    My life has been a struggle, but it hasn’t been endless desperation and hopelessness. I’m not stuck in the same way or to the same extent that many other Americans are. I feel no threat from any negative stereotype of the racial, ethnic, regional or class variety. Such stereotypes pose no threat to me because they don’t apply to me.

    The other part of such stereotypes is that rural people are ignorant, uneducaed social conservatives. That applies to me even less than the rest. I’m definitely no social conservative. And my parents raised me to highly value intelligence and education, most especially self-education. My favrite activity in all the world s reading, well favorite activity besides napping with a kitty cat on a lazy day. I would imagine that the Asian guy, in asking his question, probably wasn’t assuming I was a pansy liberal intellectual.

    Stereotypes are easier to take when you don’t see them applying to yourself. However, if almost everyone you meet treats you a certain way, I could understand how you might begin to believe it after a while or else feel threatened by the possibility of confirming it as if you constantly had to prove yourself.

    • The power dynamic is the most key element.

      It doesn’t necessarily matter if you think a stereotype applies to or how much you fight against it. There is only so much an individual can do when a person as part of a group has the power to force a stereotype on you and enforce its application onto the social order. This can hapen many ways such as social privilege vs prejudice, political power vs disenfranchisement, media control vs being silenced, etc etc.

      With the Asian guy, he probably saw the power dynamic differently. It was partly a clash of worldviews. Many of the foreign students come from economically above average families. Poor people don’t tend to go to college and, even when they do, they rarely travel to distant countries in order to attend college. So, I was probably interacting with a guy who had his own set of societal privileges.

      Maybe he saw it as a class power dynamic. He maybe wanted to play the role of the well off Asian traveling the world and I was supposed to play the role of the low class stupid American. However, as a white male native-born American citizen, I have my own privileges which would be just as real even if I were poor and rural. He might even have been stereotyping me in a preemptive fashion as he may have experience plenty of stereotyping by white guys who looked like me.

      I’m just speculating, but it is the type of thing that goes on with stereotypes. Along with power dynamics, there are also lots of psychological dynamics.

      It is easy to fall into thinking according to stereotypes. We are trained in this from a young age. Quite a bit of childhood humor is about stereotypes. Even as adults, prejudice often is expressed as humor, as joking around. I noticed the Asian guy was lauhing and smiling as he asked his question. Humor hides the barb of prejudice.

      None of this is about being a bad person. The guy in question was simply acting like a normal young person. I’ve had equally stupid or even more stupid questions from people of all races and ethnicities.

      I noticed an example of this with my brother who is a genuinely nice person and not prone to prejudice. A few months ago, my brother joked about his coworkers who include many rural whites. He specifically joked about their lack of attractiveness such as being overweight and missing teeth. There are some fairly poor people in Iowa, even though we don’t have the really bad poverty rates of some states.

      Anyway, it made me sad to hear my otherwise nice brother joke about those who are disadvantaged by poverty. Yes, many poor people live unhealthy lives and can’t afford much in the way of regular healthcare and dentistry. That isn’t any reason to make jokes about them at their expense, even when they aren’t present. It is plain mean-spirited. Besides, I can’t help but think that this effects how my brother interacts with some of his coworkers. It implies that he looks down upon them, and I’m sure they sense it.

      It is all very sad.

      I’m sure I’ve been guilty of this kind of thing at times in my life. It has been depression that has been my greatest teacher. There is nothing like being humbled to make one feel more humble. Depression sure has humbled me and hopefully made me more compassionate.

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