Are you black in a town full of white people? Gay in a place that isn’t very open-minded? White in Asia? Do you have a Mohawk? A woman at an office full of men? Have a disability? Just a little bit quirky? If your answer is yes to any of these, or if you stand out in any other way, you most likely have something in common. You’ve been subject to some ridiculous comments, stereotypes and possibly even some forms of harassment. As a result, you may have a bunch of pent up frustration that you don’t feel free to express in the group of peers which you are the one who stands out, and as a result of this frustration you may have developed some stereotypes of your own.
The fact is, when we stand out, we attract the ignorant people who say ignorant things straight to us. It can be very frustrating to hear some comments every day, and if you stand out (sometimes even a little), you may hear these comments literally every day. If you are white in America it may be hard to understand why some Black and Asian friends get so annoyed when someone asked them “Can I touch your hair?” or “Where are you REALLY from?”. Try to imagine hearing this EVERY day, sometimes multiple times a day.
An “ex-pat” may hear some similarly ridiculous stereotypes every day. “You are American? You must be very open. How many girlfriends do you have?” “From Italy? Pasta pizza mama Mia!”. Even among “friends” we sometimes end up fooled into thinking someone really wants to be friends with us when they really just want to practice their English or show off how international they are. It’s not so different from people who have token black friends or token gay friends.
There isn’t enough shared culture and people don’t realize that they can CREATE a shared culture from scratch in order to relate. Some people use pop culture references in order to relate in an international scene, but the pop culture is full of similar stereotypes and identity politics. I like to relate through passion and a desire to understand each other’s lives. I’m curious about my Nigerian and Indians friends experiences and outlooks and recognize there will be some patterns but also that each individual is an individual and that we can relate deeply through our passion, perhaps even deeper than we can relate to our respective “countrymen”.
Obviously not all of these different “black sheep” have the same kind of experiences as “black sheep”. Racial and Genders dynamics as well as sexual orientation are complicated issues in many places. As an American in Asia, I hear stupid comments similar to the ones I heard muttered at a good friend in high school who happened to be black in America. “You are black, why don’t you like hip-hop?”. There are huge differences. I came here from another place, so I chose to be here, she grew up there, in the US, a multicultural country; and racism in America has a long history with many wounds that still haven’t healed, systematic injustices and a media that capitalizes off people’s frustrations.
What I want to focus on, and I think it’s something very important, is what we have in common as “black sheep”. We all deal with being stereotypes by awkward people who don’t realize that they are making us feel uncomfortable and usually insist that they haven’t done anything wrong.
As outcasts or people who stand out, we should realize a few things. Firstly, many (not all) of these people mean no harm, they are merely ignorant and stuck in a bubble, perhaps a bit lacking in emotional intelligence. You may want to think of them as racist, but you will never be able to convince them that they are being racist because they do not see what you see, they’re EQ just isn’t there. It’s important to distinguish between ignorance/ineptness/awkwardness and racism. Not apologizing for them, but you will feel better when you see this distinction.
Secondly, there are always fewer of them than it seems. The people who are ignorant, don’t know how to make you feel comfortable, or just don’t get it will usually speak to you more easily than someone who can imagine that you may not want to hear the same ignorant comments and questions every day. Not only that, they stick out in your mind. It may feel like “All white people” or “All men” or “All women” or “All (insert nationality here)” but it never is, and it’s probably a lot less than you think. Remember, these idiots are seeking you out, and often just have a desire to make a connection with you and really don’t know how. Forgive them, not for them, but for your own sanity.
If you can focus on the fact that not everyone is THAT stupid, you can often find people who get it and know how to see you for you instead of whatever stereotype they may have already cooked up for you. Focusing on how bad they are will lead to you counter-stereotyping and will bring out the stupid in even more people. Focus on the pleasant exceptions and you will find more of them