I‘ve been thinking about getting into life coaching for about three years now, mostly because I already do it. But since I usually have to try to be a coach and a friend at the same time, I end up kinda sucking at both. So I finally signed up for a life coaching course as a symbol of commitment to getting serious about the practice. In advance of the course (which begins in January 2015), I arranged a phone call the guy who teaches it, Tim Brownson, so that I could get a feel for how to get from where I am (a smart, helpful guy) to where I want to be (a coach who has a clear sense of his practice).
As soon as he greeted me I entered a state of shock. This guy has a freakin British accent. And it’s not just a Doctor Who British accent; this is a serious, straight from the Motherland, you wouldn’t even know he’s been here for nine years British accent. I had to close my eyes so I could focus exclusively on his voice. And even then I had to have him spell some words for me so I was sure of what he was saying.
But none of this is the point. The point is that as soon as I heard that accent, he became a British Guy. What are some of the characteristics of a British Guy? He’s got excellent manners, he can make me laugh just by having a British accent, and he probably wears suits far more frequently than it is comfortable to do so. Why are these characteristics of the British Guy? Because that’s the cartoon image I have of him. It is a stereotype. If he had an American accent, I would not have painted this ridiculous picture of the man. But because he was British, it took me at least 10 minutes to push through the stereotype and entertain the notion that he is a real person with a complex personality whose traits are largely unknown to me.
10 fucking minutes to learn to see a British person as a unique human being.
Do you realize how long that is? When you meet a stranger in a casual interaction, how often do you get to spend 10 minutes with her? If you’re like me, then it is pretty rare. Now I could guilt trip myself for instantly casting the guy into a stereotype (except that guilt leads to repression), but stereotyping is normal and even reasonable, believe it or not.
Stereotype and Race
A former roommate of mine once lamented that she only attracted “the worst sort of men.” Naturally, I wondered, “What makes them so bad?” So she painted me a picture, “Mmm girl, you got some booty. How bout you gimme yo numba.” Naturally, based on her impression, I assume these men are black–this despite my own fondness for ghetto booties.
But why? I assumed that the hoodrat impression she gave me implies a black person because if these men talked that way and weren’t black, she would have made it a point to say so. She might have said, “and the strangest part is that they’re Asian and they talk that way.” We associate black skin color with hoodrat culture. The hood’s got a sprinkling of Asians, Hispanics and whites, of course, but you might just find yourself describing these people as “acting black.”
To complicate matters further, I know this woman well enough to know that she doesn’t actually have any qualms with black skin color. In literal terms, race is not an issue with her. Granted, these men she was impersonating were probably “too black” for her, but she’d have been quite happy with a black man as long as he was sophisticated enough and educated enough. And that’s the rub. For some reason, we don’t see sophistication and education as being part of hood culture, or even black culture in general.
The concepts we have of cultures that are foreign to us are caricatures, cheap imitations of the real thing. If you’ve never been to China, you probably don’t know much about the culture apart from a language you don’t understand and a bunch of faces that all look the same. And that’s fairly small potatoes: most of us know we know nothing about the Chinese. But when you think you know something about a culture that is foreign to you, then the stereotype begins. Maybe you’ve met a couple of hoodrats, maybe you got held up at gunpoint by a desperate black person, or maybe you were rescued from drowning by a guy decked out in bling. Some experiences will leave you with positive impressions and some negative. The point is, you’ve had a couple of experiences and now you feel like you have an idea of the culture.
Some of the ideas we tend have of hood culture are: drug saturation, high poverty rates, high violent crime rates, lack of education. These are all, of course, negative traits–things we think are wrong with hood culture. It is actually pretty common for people to associate only negative traits with hood culture, but we all know that this is only a caricature of the hood.
Whether positive or negative, a stereotype is a distorted image of something out in the world. (Tweet this.)
We all have and use stereotypes, so don’t pretend you don’t.
We Stereotype Both Persons and Cultures
We stereotype persons by lumping them into the ideas we have of what we take to be their culture. When you see a black woman with a big butt, loud colors and lots of attitude, you might immediately associate these traits with a whole slew of other traits that are part of your own unique hood stereotype. Before you even meet her, you have an idea of what to expect. If you have a negative perspective of hood culture, you’ll associate her with negative traits, such as being boisterous, promiscuous, and dramatic. But if you have a positive perspective of hood culture, you’ll see her differently, perhaps as confident, shrewd, and without pretense (at least these are positive traits I usually see).
We stereotype cultures by drawing hard lines between what is and is not part of the culture. So a black man from the hood who is gentle and scholarly is in danger of being seen as “not black enough.” The reality, though, is always far more complex. There are scholars in the hood, even if they never end up with higher degrees. Just as any person can be outgoing, shy, aggressive, docile, curious, closed-minded, emotional or rational depending on the circumstances and influences, so any culture is capable of boasting all the varieties of personalities within it–including those that are not commonly perceived as part of the stereotype. Black culture is rife with introverted intellectuals, but they don’t usually look and act like intellectuals in other cultures. Like persons, cultures emphasize certain personalities more than others–but all possible human personalities are still there. I call this the Law of Cultural Completeness.
Stereotype really isn’t about skin color anymore than my cartoon picture of the British Guy is about an accent. If I can’t stand British people, does that make me accentist? Only the most backward and uneducated of persons really think that there is some kind genetic flaw in black people, and even then I’m doubtful that anyone really entertains this idea. It’s not about race; it’s about culture.
Sure, we are all bigots, but we are not bigots because we don’t like certain skin colors. We are bigots because we don’t like certain cultures. We are culturists, if you will.
Cultures Disagree on Which Archetypes Are Preferred
What we’re talking about here is archetypes. There are many levels of archetypes, but at the most fundamental level they serve to identify two things:
- the basic possibilities of human experience and
- the interlocking elements of our individual and cultural psyches.
So the first function of archetypes provides me a concept of what it means to be a Father, a Warrior, a Sage, an Adventurer, or any other role I am capable of playing by virtue of being human. The second function of archetypes provides a community of personae within my own psyche which allow me to respond fluidly to the any situation. If I did not have the Warrior within me, I would not rush to the defense of another when I perceive an unjust attack. If I did not have the Anima within me, I would not be able to respond to and understand women. Etc.
Every culture offers native mythoi (plural of mythos, which is a web of myths), or stories that explain humanity and its place in the universe. The mythoi of your culture provide you an archetypal framework, including an implicit set of relationships and priorities about the archetypes of human experience. In my case, the mythoi I inherited were typical of my Louisiana upbringing: middle-class values, a Catholic ethics and cosmology, and a Neo-Conservative politics. The Shadow archetype in this culture is filled with sexual impulses and non-Christian religious attitudes. The emotive archetypes in this culture are subordinated to rational ones; the Adventurer is discouraged in favor of the Warrior and the Father; the Hetaira is shamed as a sexual deviant; the list goes on.
Because each culture has a unique prioritization of archetypes, conflicts between these prioritizations arise quite naturally and predictably. Sub-cultural counterexamples notwithstanding, American white culture tends to be subdued, polite, and intellectual, while American black culture tends to be confrontational, blunt, and emotionally expressive. The values that these cultures reject are always lumped into the Shadow archetype, so white cultures sees black culture as evil or backward insofar as its emotional expressiveness is unpredictable. As a group, white people are afraid black people will suddenly start shooting guns. Similarly, black culture sees white culture as sinister and arrogant, insofar is its politeness hides ulterior motives. As a group, black people are afraid that white people are scheming to maintain class hierarchy.
Stereotypes Are Constructed from Archetypes
Stereotypes are not the same as archetypes. Stereotypes are made of archetypes in the same way that a computer is made of electrical components, but just as there are infinite possibilities for circuitry, so there are infinite possibilities for archetypal combinations within stereotypes.
Every culture has a unique expression of archetypal relationships, arising through mythos and perpetuated through tradition. The dutiful, hardworking man, for example, is one that has been deeply ingrained into my own psyche. But unless we have been immersed in a culture, we are ignorant of the subtle layering of archetypal patterns. If you are suddenly presented with an electronic device, you may have no idea what it does until you spend hours getting to know it. And even then, you might still be ignorant of it. The same is true of cultures. So a stereotype gives a distorted picture of a culture by attributing an inaccurate or incomplete set of archetypes to that culture.
But we can’t immerse ourselves in every culture, just as we can’t become familiar with every electronic device. I’ve just started hearing about the Apple Watch. I don’t really know anything about it except that it is a watch and it is made by Apple. Because I know a few things about Apple, I can guess what it does (like it probably has a touch-screen) and I can read about it, but I’ll never know the device unless I get one and spent lots of time with it. So, until I buy and experience my own Apple Watch, all I’m going to have is a stereotype of the device: a distorted image of the watch.
Are stereotypes bad? No! We need stereotypes. I’ll say that again for dramatic effect:
Stereotypes are good. We need stereotypes.
Stereotypes allow us to make judgments on the fly about what’s going on in our lives. When someone tells me a few things about the Apple Watch, the stereotype I form about it allows me to decide whether I am interested in learning more about it or possibly getting one myself. The same is true of cultures. I have a stereotype image of Chinese culture in my mind (Sound religious philosophies, unsound politics, slanty eyes, bizarre sounding language, strong math skills). This stereotype is the basis on which I have to judge whether I want to dig deeper into the culture.
The same applies to persons. Say a ragged woman walks toward you while you are walking downtown. You instantly have an impression of what it is she wants and why. If you are like me, you have stereotyped her as part of the homeless culture. This stereotype helps you make a quick judgment about how to respond to the situation, but it doesn’t tell you anything about this one unique woman.
So What Is Racism About, Then?
The root of racism–as well as many other forms of bigotry, such as ageism and religious discrimination–is what I’ve called “culturism.” Culturism can be defined as “The belief that characteristics associated with one culture are somehow inferior to characteristics associated with another culture.” People who devalue other cultures grandfather skin color into culturism because it is the easiest identifiable trait that can be associated with the devalued culture. And because skin color is predictably hereditary, it follows culture more closely than almost any other physical trait.
If we untangle skin color from culture, it becomes obvious how and why culturism has been institutionalized and enforced based on skin color. The racial divide in the United States began with imperialist European culture. This culture appropriated land from Natives and absconded servitude from Africans as a mere consequence of its position of power. Once in power, European culture began to enforce itself unconsciously as the only valid culture. So education now overemphasizes the three Rs, social interaction overemphasizes pretense, and the Native and African religions are crushed underfoot by Christianity. The culture that traveled from Europe to the US has evolved, but still seeks to assert itself as the only valid culture, opposing itself to other cultures as the eternal Hero fighting foe after foe, never recognizing that it is attempting to slay its own Shadow.
And so we now find ourselves targeting all cultures associated with brown people, though we euphemize this targeting with the word “profiling.” Skin color discrimination is a mere symptom of the deeper issue: we have glorified some archetypes (such as those exemplified by Hermes, Zeus, and Apollo) at the expense of the others (such as those exemplified by Ares, Eros, and Artemis).
How to Be Less Racist
I’ve seen lots of talk lately about becoming aware of the many ways that we are all racist or sexist or some other kind of bigoted. The implicit message in these sources is that because you make stereotypes and associate these stereotypes with people and cultures, you are a bad person and should stop being bad. Bad, bad you.
Talking about how we are all bigots is important, so I’m not criticizing the talk. However, it can easily miss the underlying issue: Stereotyped judgments are only problematic when we believe that the stereotype is the complete picture and that one picture is intrinsically better than another.
Commitment to stereotypes and value judgments is what gets us in trouble, not our habit of stereotyping. (Tweet this.)
But we do need a less bigoted, more accepting world-wide culture. So how do we get there from here?
I never endorse shaming of any kind, so while calling everyone racist does increase awareness, it is hardly a solution. The real solution is mindfulness, and not just any mindfulness–a certain kind of mindfulness. It is a mindfulness that has three distinct habits:
1. Be aware of where and when you are projecting your Shadow.
When you see the ragged woman heading your way on your downtown stroll, what do you see? Do you pity her? Are you instantly annoyed because you think she’s going to start asking for drug money? Do you wish she’d get a job? These attitudes are more than just stereotypes; they indicate that part of your stereotype of homeless culture is associated with your Shadow. The Shadow is the version of you that you never ever want to become. So you see these people as somehow bad and you never want to be like that.
2. Be aware of the distorted and incomplete nature of your stereotypes.
We cannot shed our culture. I know, I’ve tried. How you are raised becomes a part of you. I may not consider myself Catholic or even Christian anymore, but I still make heavy use of the Christian mythos and its centerpiece, The Bible. We are born into, live within, and die a part of our culture. Many of us have the good fortune of entering new cultures, but we still remain firmly within these new cultures and cannot become “objective observers,” whatever the hell that means.
When you see someone who looks like a hoodrat, chances are pretty good that you actually are witnessing a member of hood culture. The fact that you make this judgment is not a problem and it is not racist. The problem begins when you think you know more about the culture than you do, or when you make value judgments about people based on their culture or what you assume to be their culture.
Educate yourself, dammit. Every culture has both positive and negative traits. I know yours does. So find out what those traits are in both your own culture and foreign cultures. If you’re diligent and attentive, you might actually begin to respect and learn from other cultures. Because I was born squarely into white culture, I will never be as naturally expressive and confrontational as my friends who were born into black culture. But I want to be. I fucking want to be.
3. Look for the uniqueness
Your culture is your stage, your environment. It is the name of the dance you are dancing. But how you move on the stage, how you dance that dance is entirely up to you. Yes, the Lindy Hop has a specific rhythm and a certain look. But these are only the broader traits that are unique to the Lindy Hop culture. Every Lindy Hopper has a different style, and sometimes part of that style includes breaking the rules of Lindy Hop, or fusing Lindy with some other dance. So look for that style and never forget that everyone has an unpredictably unique style.
How often do you forget to see people as fully-formed human beings with a set of passions, values, hopes and fears that is completely unknown to you? It’s both a glorious and an embarrassing moment for me when I realize I’ve scraped these crucial features off of my impression of someone else. In that moment, I see her as beautiful and surprising. But in that same moment, I see that I had been treating her as a Muppet or a character in a Die Hard film. And we do this all the time. We can’t seem to see past the pretty face of a hottie or the uniform of a cop.
After those first 10 minutes on the phone with Tim the British life coach, I found I was able to laugh at the ways his style flies in the face of British culture, even though he is obviously a product of it. And I’m sure people say the same about me.
Being mindful is almost enough to cut back on your own culturist tendencies. Awareness goes a long, long way toward achieving any goal at all. But without the willingness, the courage to actually act on the subtle forms of culturism that your mindfulness will reveal to you, then you will never have the kind of impact you could have. The world needs to know that its stereotypes are ignorant and unbalanced. The world especially needs to know that projecting its own shadow onto other cultures will never heal the wound that separated Self from Shadow in the first place.
You don’t need to shame others, but when you hear someone making bigoted slurs, you have got to say something. When I hear these things, I make it a point to let everyone know that my perspective does not match what is being said. Yes, the mob rules, but the unconscious mob is very weak when confronted with the conscious individual. That’s you! You’re that individual! I’ve seen racist or sexist insult-fests instantly switch to embarrassment when just one person said, “Wait, I’m not cool with this.”
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