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Sorry for not being the stereotype

On Saturday I asked a friend who is also black, to help me open a bottle of water I was struggling with. She said, "you're a strong black woman and should be able to open it yourself." My reply was a simple one: "I'm sorry for not being the stereotype."

Although published in The Chicago Sun-Times in 2004, the story by Rita Pyrillis in the article titled: Sorry for not being the stereotype - the diary entry of a part-time Indian (transcript below), could well be the words of any woman or man from a marginalised group today.

Continues below. 

Pyrillis speaks of the heart rending challenges she faces on a daily basis in trying to be seen as an actual individual.

We are all individuals with our own separate fears, thoughts, hopes, and dreams and not a group.  We all, however, unconsciously make quick judgments and decisions on individuals steeped in stereotypes such as, their gender, race, age, ability, sexual orientation, sexuality and religion, to name but a few. My friend's comment is an example of that. Although in this case, it was harmless, studies illustrate that stereotypes eventually become internalised. In my work as a coach and Saturday school teacher, I witness the life-changing impact internalised bias has on both the equality and emotional wellbeing of women and children. I witness how decisions that are based on stereotypes affect their lives, livelihoods and human rights. 

It is known as unconscious bias. The problem is that it is difficult to avoid because our brain works in patterns and our biases are as unconscious as breathing.

The Stereotypes around how I speak:

Despite the fact that I was born and raised in London, every now and again I am asked by people from my own race why I speak like a white person. I am not alone in this issue and have spoken with many other black people who have encountered the same issue.

"Despite the fact that I was born and raised in London, every now and again I am asked by people from my own race why I speak like a white person."

Ingrid Marsh - The Badass Motivational Speaker

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Those who question it accuse us of losing our identity. They believe that 'every' black person should speak as they do in order to be deemed black. In their view, we must all, every single last one of us, drop letters from our words and say things like 'fam' instead of 'family'. My mother has never spoken this way either and so I wonder where they think I would have adopted this way of speaking. 

The stereotypes around my son's intellect:


I had a meeting with my son's previous school governors to challenge them on their 'unique' methodology which resulted in all the black boys being in a lower stream than their peers, despite many of them scoring higher. On walking into the meeting one of them said "oh here comes the ambitious one," in a negative context. To dare to think my son could possibly be smart was beyond her ingrained automatic thought patterns. The stream he was placed in meant he would not be afforded the opportunity to do treble science and so I moved him mid-secondary.

In the new school, among his string of  A/A*'s in his recent GCSE's, in the treble science he received all A*'s.

The stereotypes around my gender:

I have also had guys wonder why I take offense and am not flattered when on meeting me their eyes follow me up and down like a paintbrush. When they say things like, "yeah baby you have a really nice shape." Shape! When I am objectified, talked about like I'm a vase on a shelf and reduced to nothing more than my boobs and my behind, they become alarmed I am not falling into their arms.

The solution:

The answer nonetheless is simpler than we think, but increasingly difficult to achieve as the world moves faster and faster. We simply need to slow down our thinking. Slowing down and pausing after every decision we make, especially those that can impact the lives of others. Slowing down can help us to overcome our biases, make more conscious decisions, improve ourselves and help create a better world.

This post, 'Sorry for not being the stereotype,' is a shout out to those who wish to move beyond the stories that have been written for them and are ready to write their own. It's also a big fat hell-raising high five to those who already do. 

"Remember there are always two stories. The one written for you and the one you write for yourself."

Ingrid M - The Badass Motivational Speaker

Sorry for Not being a stereotype:  Published in the Chicago-Sun Times, April 24, 2004 By Rita Pyrillis 

How many of you would know an American Indian if you saw one? My guess is not many. Certainly not the bank teller who called security when an Indian woman — a visiting scholar — tried to cash a check with a tribal identification card. When asked what the problem was, the teller replied: "It must be a scam. Everyone knows real Indians are extinct."

And not the woman who cut in front of me at the grocery checkout a few months ago. When I confronted her, she gave me the once over and said: "Why don't you people just go back to your own country."

OK, lady, after you, I said, when I thought of it the next morning.

Even though I was born and raised in Chicago, strangers sometimes assume I'm a foreigner. For the record, I'm Native American, or Indian — take your pick. I prefer Lakota.

Sometimes strangers think I'm from another time. They wonder if I live in a teepee or make my own buckskin clothes or have ever hunted buffalo. They are surprised when I tell them that most Indians live in cities, in houses, and some of us shop at the Gap. I've never hunted a buffalo, although I almost hit a cow once while driving through South Dakota. 

Sometimes, people simply don't believe I'm Indian. "You don't look Indian," a woman told me once. She seemed disappointed. I asked her what an Indian is supposed to look like. "You know. Long black hair, braids, feathers, beads."

Apparently, as Indians go, I'm a flop, an embarrassment to my racial stereotype. My hair is shoulder-length, and I don't feather it, unless you count my unfortunate big hair period in junior high.

When you say you're Indian, you better look the part or be prepared to defend yourself. Those are fighting words. When my husband tells people he's German, do they expect him to wear lederhosen? Of course not. But such are the risks when you dare to be Indian. You don't tug on Superman's cape, and you don't mess around with a man's stereotype.

Native American scholar Vine Deloria wrote that of all the problems facing Indian people, the most pressing one is our transparency. Never mind the staggering suicide rate among Native youth, or the fact that Indians are the victims of violent crimes at more than twice the rate of all U.S. residents — our very existence seems to be in question. 

"Because people can see right through us, it becomes impossible to tell truth from fiction or fact from mythology," he wrote. "The American public feels most comfortable with the mythical Indians of stereotype-land who were always THERE."

Sure. Stereotypes don't have feelings, or children who deserve to grow up with images that reflect who they are — not perfect images, but realistic ones. While Little Black Sambo and the Frito Bandito have made their way into history books, Indians are still battling a red-faced, big-nosed Chief Illiniwek and other stereotypes. No wonder people are confused about who Indians really are. When we're not hawking sticks of butter, or beer or chewing tobacco, we're scalping settlers. When we're not passed out drunk, we're living large off casinos. When we're not gyrating in Pocahoochie outfits at the Grammy Awards, we're leaping through the air at football games, represented by a white man in red face. It's enough to make Tonto1 speak in multiple syllables.

And it's enough to make hard-working, decent Indian folks faced with more urgent problems take to the streets in protest. Personally, I'd rather take in my son's Little League game, but as long as other people insist on telling me when to be honored or offended, or how I should look or talk or dance, I will keep telling them otherwise. To do nothing would be less than honorable.

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