Sunday, July 19, 2009

The Mike Statement, In Stereo(typing)

Carley and I have been having a very good debate in the below post, and it started with my comment that, when Meaghan and I go to Las Vegas and stay in the Paris Hotel - which is being marketed to gays and lesbians - that I anticipate the opportunity to cross paths with some colourful, unique individuals. This, in turn, has given me cause to reflect on just what does and doesn't qualify as safe ground to tread on when dealing with stereotyping.

John always used to quote a Sports Illustrated article he read where the writer commented that, while it may be acceptable to say to someone tall and athletic "Wow, you must be great at basketball!", it probably would not be as acceptable to say to a short person "Wow, you must be a jockey!"

I suppose a lot of the argument revolves around what people do and do not have control over in their lives - sexual orientation, skin colour, height, athletic prowess - a nature versus nurture argument in microcosm, perhaps.

I've been lucky enough to grow up and spend my whole life in the wonderful diversity that is southern Ontario, living in Brampton and Orangeville, spending a lot of time everywhere along the 401 from London and Toronto to Ottawa and Montreal. I've had the opportunity to meet and become friends with people with a diverse array of cultures, attitudes, and personalities. I've also had the opportunity to know people that, like me, are willing to poke fun at themselves, while being able to dish it out just as well. That, I think, comes from living in Canada at large, where self-deprecating humour is bottled and exported like nothing else.

And it is in this give-and-take brand of humour that stereotypes are revealed, illuminated, and, hopefully, stripped of their debilitating connotations to give power back to the stereotyped. Unfortunately, there is a fine line, sometimes blurry, between this illuminated usage of stereotypes and the ignorant usage of stereotypes.

It's the ignorant stereotypes that have caused some of the worst problems in the world; it's this brand of stereotype that has served to elevate one person over another, rather than help to level the playing field. These stereotypers are the ones that can't handle differences or deviations, and, unable to strike back with knowledge and wit, bang their chests and yell and put down the stereotyped. Unfortunately, these most ignorant tend to have the loudest voices, and the lunatic chest beating and idiot yelling eventually turns into a rallying cry for a gathering of further ignorance.

The illuminated usage, on the other hand, I feel should be meant to take the power away from the stereotype as a denigrating put-down, and should help the stereotyped get in on the joke, if you will. Kind of like in school when you were being made fun of1 - a pretty surefire way to halt that laughter was to lob a few jokes at yourself.

From another person, rather than acting as a jab, a comment playing on a well-defined stereotype can act as an olive branch to make someone feel more welcome. Obviously that sounds very best-case scenario and schmarmy, but saying or doing something that shows you've been around different people, experienced different things, and actually paid attention to what you've seen, even the stereotypes, can show that you recognize someone as a different, unique, individual person, but that you're not going to treat them any differently than you treat yourself or your friends.

God knows I love Canada, but we as Canadians have a very strange dichotomy when it comes to diversity. We celebrate our diversity, happy in the knowledge that we have not become a "melting pot" like the States, but we're very reactionary whenever we feel a group is being "offended". We get very antsy when someone from outside of a group makes a comment about that group2; we seem to crave very defined borders of diversity, so that we know who's allowed to say what. The irony is that, when stereotypes arise, we want to look past those differences and realize that we're all alike; a very homogenous view, indeed.

We are all different, but we're also the same in a lot of ways - there are seven billion people on the planet, odds are we've got a lot of the same genes floating around. Stereotypes come from similar actions, mannerisms, speech patterns, buying habits, family relationships, even physiological traits3 - although they are identifying features, they do not need to be negative ones.

Too much candour may not necessarily be the best way to deal with stereotypes - which is probably my problem - but hiding from them or pretending they don't exist isn't the way to deal with them either.

I think that gets it over with from my side.


1 - Which I, of course, never experienced, having had glasses from the age of 5, two sets of braces, generally being the tallest person in the class, and being "gifted". Yeah, I got really good at learning how to join in on the jokes
2 - Russell Peters aside
3 - Oh, marketing - what a horrible soul you've turned me into

1 comment:

ccentenrun said...

Well written (the first half anyway), though after all that I'm not really sure you actually addressed anything.

Just to clarify... My reaction was not to homogenise difference. But I don't think the choice is between homegenising and stereotyping. And in any case, the opposite of homogeneity shouldn't entail sneakily taking a photo of someone because you think they're a freak.

Other than that, I agree to disagree. And recommend that if you ever get a chance to participate in an anti-oppression course, you might be surprised by what you learn.