“Once you label me you negate me.” – Soren Kierkergaard
Some stereotypes are real.
At least that’s the thought that crossed my mind last week driving through Queens, when my wife observed that we were stopped at the quintessential “ghetto” intersection (she didn’t use the word ghetto; I did), lined with a check cashing pay-day lender, liquor store, pawn shop, McDonald’s, and bodega. No banks or boutiques or farmers markets or vitamin shops. Just businesses that rob customers of health, wealth, and stability. Strip malls like this don’t exist in suburbia or on Fifth Avenue.
In the days since then, I’ve been overcome by two realities:
1) Embracing stereotypes is convenient. Group think informs popular punditry and our increasingly sound-bite culture. Journalists obsess over the so-called Black Vote, Red/Blue states, the Latino Explosion, and the curious case of Linsanity. The comedian’s easiest laugh is, “The one about …” Labels and categories provide convenient shortcuts for policy makers, school administrators, marketers, and political strategists.
Same for youth workers. We can anticipate and describe the good kids and troublemakers, the jocks and artists and nerds and loners and gamers. We differentiate music styles and preaching techniques by race and ethnicity. When we “know our audience,” we plan activities and programs with these cultural distinctions in mind.
2) Embracing stereotypes remains destructive. Problems arise when all we really know about our audience (or our neighbors or the newcomers who are changing the face of our community) is what the stereotypes tell us. When they alone inform our beliefs and attitudes and assumptions about the Other and we fail to take the time to truly know the person beyond the labels, it’s impossible to love them as ourselves, the way Jesus demands.
Even worse is the ease with which stereotypes can be internalized. The self-loathing and insecurities that result, diminish the capacity to love God with all of ourselves, our hearts, minds, souls, and spirits.
“A Girl Like Me.” Consider, for example, the sobering case of the 50th anniversary of Brown v. Board of Education, the landmark Supreme Court decision that overturned Jim Crow apartheid, desegregated schools, and declared that racial separations make institutions inherently unequal. In the wake of Brown’s 50th anniversary, researchers revisited the social science behind the decision, specifically the “Doll Test,” wherein black children were given the option of playing with a black or white doll. The 2007 documentary “A Girl Like Me,” reports the horrifying reality that the results of the Doll Test more than 50 years after Brown were remarkably consistent with those before desegregation.
Five decades later, children fashioned by God in his image and for his glory are still internalizing messages that they are somehow inferior to other children solely because they don’t fit a stereotype.
What to do? It’s our responsibility, as lovers of God and people, to change things. As ministers charged with equipping the saints for works of service (Ephesians 4), we must model for those we lead an authentic love that resists the urge to do what’s convenient all the time. Let’s search for a deeper understanding of our neighbors than market research and census data alone provide. Only life-on-life relationships with those whose stereotypes make us uncomfortable can propel us beyond assumptions and labels towards a genuine love of the person.