A Little Story From My Childhood
We were only in the 6th grade. I had been friends with Becky since I moved to the area in the 1st grade. She was my first friend, as a matter of fact, which is why when I walked into the locker room to change for gym class and I heard my new friends–the “cool” crowd–picking on Becky, taunting her and insisting she still played with unicorns, I had to defend her. Despite the fact it was only 6th grade, it didn't make cliques any less real; I should know since I was a member. But it was in that moment that I saw how I could use that position to do good.
I rounded the corner and interrupted their catty laughter: “You should talk, Veronica–wasn't that a Barbie collection that I saw at your house last weekend?” Their laughter halted and it was apparent that no one knew how to respond. “Lay off Becky,” I warned. “She's cool.”
At that time, I was one of the “popular” girls–I had a middle school romance going with Vince, after all–so they backed down without much of a struggle. It prompted me to think, however, what happens to all who don't have someone in their corner?
Pick On Someone Your Own Size
Whether it's an innocent young adolescent girl, or a poverty-stricken family, or a member of a minority, or perhaps a new immigrant, people every day are getting picked on–both directly and indirectly–by those in a position of power. The motivations vary, but more often than not, those people likely don't have someone backing them up–they're left to defend themselves against a world that can be cruel, to say the least.
Worse, oftentimes those getting marginalized are being marginalized not because of something they've done, but because they fit a certain stereotype. The American-born Latino who gets called a wetback and is looked upon as stupid, dirty, lazy, or immoral. The Jewish person who is automatically labeled as greedy nit-pickers. The Italian who is joked with about being violent, ignorant or otherwise associated with the mafia. The African American who is perceived as a trouble-maker, drug user or gang member.
Stereotypes teach us, via implication, how we're supposed to perceive and treat others. The problem with that, however, is that stereotypes aren't real; they're merely an unfortunate, overgeneralized, oversimplified association. What better way to dehumanize someone than by reducing them to a handful of traits? By using stereotypes to guide our opinions about others, whether consciously or unconsciously, we are marginalizing not only them, but ourselves. We're alienating ourselves, via misguided logic, from the people that make up this planet–and all of the incredible relationships, new experiences and learning opportunities–because we've allowed stereotypes to dominate our beliefs.
Stereotypes Are Everywhere–And They're Royally ******* Things Up
Yet, stereotypes don't just affect human relations. While the stereotyping of humans is likely the most prominent–and most detrimental–we tend to develop stereotypes across all aspects of living. One in particular that stuck with me just the other day, as we held our meet-up in Chicago, was something that writer Nina Yau brought up:
“Growing up, I loved art, but my parents warned me not to take it on as a career, unless I wanted to end up a starving artist. Instead, I went to school for business.”
The starving artist.
Oh, how hearing her talk about her long lost dreams being put aside, all in the name of a stereotype, added such a solemn note to my day; the common belief being that if you become an artist, you will be poor.
The implications here are so, so many, namely that those who pursue creativity as a career can be typecast as economically naive, foolish or irresponsible. Imagine all of us out there who have surrendered our passions to this belief, mistrusting our instincts, and instead gone out and gotten that safe day job? Society seems to separate art and business, hence perpetuating the starving artist stereotype, as well as perpetuating the number of lonely, overworked, uninspired, dispassioned souls out there, who are merely the victim of an attempt to be responsible.
For us, responsible erroneously does not mean being responsible to ourselves (and hence following the paths that secretly make us light up inside); rather, responsible means being responsible to the arbitrary economic and social standards that have been set forth to us by society. And this seems to be exactly where we all go wrong.
Stereotypes can be damaging on multiple fronts, but when it comes to that of selecting a career–and, consequently, selecting what your life will be on a daily basis–stereotypes can be the ultimate sabotage.
Many argue that stereotypes are stereotypes because of a set of statistics that back them up, and therefore are based in truth; however, what most people fail to realize is that stereotypes don't conclude anything about a person, nor a career. You cannot possibly know the outcome of something until you engage with it–it's as simple as that. You can try to predict through stereotypes–sure–but in doing so, you're more likely to do more harm to yourself by marginalizing yourself from a world of opportunity that could have otherwise existed. But you'll never know, because instead of finding out for yourself, you listened to everyone else.
No matter what, I beg of you–please, please, please don't do that. Stop listening to what everyone else says, and what everyone else wants you to do. Trust in yourself. Trust in your instincts. Trust in your ability to make things work, even if they do go awry. You don't need everyone else's validation or permission to do what it is you want to do. When it comes down to it, all you need is your own.