Breaking out of stereotypes requires releasing a lot of baggage, doesn’t it?

This is an essay questioning stereotypes, belonging, pride, emotion, and socioeconomic standing. The question is how to reshuffle group belonging, or to represent from all groups and to help those who feel they don’t belong to feel as though they do.

This text questions to what extent people who learn stereotypes may be reinforced so strongly on their differences that they are unable to break out of their own life-lived stereotypes, something begun as (sub-) cultural but then becoming ingrained, i.e., can someone be their own barrier to success and change?

02 July 2013

It’s silly of me to say the following, because almost everyone here could say the same thing in one way or another. It is, however, what runs through my mind as I walk down O’Hare International Airport’s domestic flight concourse towards gate C11. It’s a grey cool summer day. The pedway escalators are on, and while people walk along them, their legs augmented by the machinery seem to not propel them any faster than the better-fit individuals who speed-walk down the regular cement walkway. My thoughts follow mostly as, ‘I don’t belong here. These are not my people….’ I watch a couple towing bags behind them and assume they are on vacation from some far-off land; I see a man dressed in khakis and a sport coat and think that he likely is on business at this moment, with a family at home for him to return to. I am completely unaware of my own assuming and implicit biasing, and instead continue to think, ‘Wow.  I don’t fit in.’

Now don’t get me wrong. I’m beyond excited to take a trip that requires air transport; it’s only my sixth time doing this in my 33 years. All trips have been US domestic, with a strong trend towards western travel. I, at least, realize that my strong sense of not belonging is highly ironic: no one here belongs. There are so many cultures, sub-cultures, ethnicities, social classes, and more, all intermingling with their carry-on luggage in tow, that the airport selects against any major group dominance. Well, but of course it will always dominate in terms of the native culture, that’s one unifying characteristic. And that everyone is flying somewhere, so they must have the means to do so. Two unifying characteristics. I am walking and thinking, watching the people I pass. Bags, the colors, the clothing, the hair styles, the jewelry, the gender, the age,… One thing I appreciated about Chicago when I moved here four years earlier was how many different shoes there were; take the CTA bus or train and try to find the same pair on the feet of two different people; possible, but not as probable as where I have lived earlier.

My sense of not belonging is mostly in regards to my social class. Where I came from and who I am. I’m not, nor was I ever, poorest-class-poor. I was, and continue to be, lowest-middle-class-poor. My kind makes just enough money that the government feels OK ignoring us. My kind makes just enough money to prevent us from doing most things in life the upper echelons of society do. Like taking airline flights. My kind doesn’t do this. But I must admit that I’m an outlier among my kind (because I’m highly educated): I’ve flown more than my parents combined have. We don’t travel, or if we do it’s within a vehicle and rarely cross-continental. We are the workers, the government employees, the janitors and store clerks. We are lucky to earn two weeks’ vacation a year. We pay a lot for health insurance and mostly live unhealthy lifestyles (again, I’m mostly an outlier).

My feeling of socio-economic isolation is further spurred by my thoughts on people I’d like to interact with, and who I’d like to become like, in my career. I think about people who belong to a lab I’m going to visit tomorrow. Again, I feel my poverty strongly against their likely higher-class upbringing and education. I even think about people I’ve applied to jobs from. I’m embarrassed I even tried! Like I could work for them. They are at least three social classes above me. Pulleeeeze!  Our kinds don’t talk. They’ve flown so many times that they scoff at the idea of someone not ever having flown. They make fun of my kind over their dinners. They ignore me at conferences, belittle me when they get a chance, and generally believe that I’m not smart. They discredit my education. They automatically assume I’ve done something wrong. If I haven’t, they are sure I will soon. They know my kind as annoyingly quaint people who do their financial reimbursements, or who will pay for their travel (yes, that’s right, they get their jobs to pay for their travel; my kind never has and never will). My kind serves them fast food and checks out their items they purchase at big-box stores. My people and those people. Our kinds don’t like each other. That’s how I’m feeling today.

I’m not the only one feeling foreign in this unified nation of diversity. When discussing my impending flight with some of my students today, one student remarked that I’d have no problem getting through the check-in. He, an upper-class young man with Indian heritage, remarked that someone like me, a female with blue eyes, would fly through check-in while someone like him, a tan-skinned man with dark hair and eyes, would get pulled aside for a search automatically. I stood there feeling sorry and apologized for my looks, it made me feel guilty. I think he wasn’t necessarily wrong1. But as I was walking from the park where we forayed to the Cumberland Blue Line station, through an industrial park interspersed with apartment buildings and interstate hotels, me trailing my brand-new luggage case with rolling wheels and a handle (I never have owned one of these before), I thought about the ways that my looks have worked against me. This student provided one example of when stereotypes can help me, in that I look very innocent. I’ve always known this. In high school I took advantage of this trait until learning to rise above such ease of manipulation; respect deserves acting respectfully, after all. But this same characteristic can also work against me. People don’t take me seriously. They have routinely treated me as less intelligent and younger than I am. They have assumed I have no inspiration to succeed in my career. They tell me to work with kids, or to teach community college. These would be fine, of course, if they were my aspirations. They don’t ever tell me to be a professor, or to lead a research group, or to write grants. I have been expected to become a mother, however. To clean, to cook, and to knit. Again, OK if I wanted that.  They belittle me. They attack me. They bully me. They won’t accept no when I say no. I should have told my student these things.  Because he might get searched on his international trip to India to see his extended family, but those same looks prevent people from taking advantage of him, from bullying him or being impolite to him. That man would turn around and deck anyone who messed with him, or so someone would think, while I, on the other hand, do not impart that emotion from others.

He isn’t just angry about airline searches, I can tell. He feels like a minority, commonly referring to his ‘brown skin.’  He’s fluent in an Indian language, knows rudimentary Spanish (probably high school level) and his (one of two?) native language is English. He’s lived in other countries, drives an expensive car, wears the type of sunglasses that look rich. His shoes are expensive. He dislikes field work. He exudes richness to someone like me. He’s right, he’s brown skinned. I think it’s a great shade, and I can’t understand why people would look down on him because of it. I’d rather that than my red hues. But people must treat him differently, as he can vocalize an anger over his ethnic status. On the first day of class he jokingly imitated an Indian accent like one hears on TV, like in the Simpsons. I believe he finds the accent offensive, yet can replicate it with ease. He’s extroverted and, yet, I can sense a sensitivity in regards to his cultural heritage and ethnicity. I don’t blame him. I would, too, if it hadn’t been wiped out in the poverty of immigration to the US four to five generations prior and general homogenization of becoming ‘American’ (whatever that term really means).

So, which would I prefer? His ethnicity and social class, or my own? I can only see how much his economic status has helped him do whatever he wants. I can tell he doesn’t count on a job for his livelihood. He appears, to me, to have been raised in a wealthy and loving environment that exposed him to an international level of education and experience. An environment that supported confidence. I compare this to my upbringing. I would love to have had that wealth, as well as the confidence associated with it. But I can tell he’s no more happy in his body than I am in mine. Are we all just bitter entities wishing we had different outward appearances? Do we all focus on the stereotypes that act against us? Do we feed into the stereotypes?

When should we realize that we’ve all had hurdles associated with biases and judgments? When should we understand that all people have stereotypes that impinge difficult situations on us, and when should we fight against them? And why do people fall so easily into stereotypes? Is it because it’s easier to fulfill what society expects of you than what you necessarily want to do, or what you believe in? For example, if I were to act out more, to speak up as the young man in my class does, I can guarantee some people would become very angry with me. They would cite me as an ungrateful girl (I am over 30), spoiled and not worth their time. I would be annoying and rude. If the young man I’ve been describing acted like me, he would be a person with an easy-going nature but quiet. Polite. Neither of those lend well to our phenotypes. Switch our roles and we fit our stereotypes perfectly.

So then I begin to wonder, were we created by society? Are we both angry that society has molded us so perfectly, and prevented us from breaking out of it? How many people want to break out of their stereotypes?


Actually, I was wrong. First of all, in an interesting turn of events, I became one of them during the six years after writing this. Especially in the last year and due to the international moves, I currently fly often enough that airports feel like a second home – I even have the audacity to categorize them on attributes I like and dislike about them. Wow, that would get an eye-roll and scowl from me of not so many years past! 🙂

During these years, I also have been searched more than could possibly be a random amount; I hypothesize that not having a passport until the age of 33 and then traveling at least once to twice internationally (between the US and Europe) the following years is a plausible explanation for why I triggered security. Until the repetition became unbearable, I was actually OK with the treatment at airports, only because it disproved a common concern regarding biased airline security checks. They do get annoying, however.

Finally, concerning the described dissonance between social classes: I decided to share some less-than-superb thoughts, and which are far too generalized, because they accurately echo sentiments of many others and are, thus, key to understanding personal barriers in mobilizing people up the workforce.