navigating stereotypes.

August 8, 2011

Dan posted his thoughts on an article on not quite fitting into racial stereotypes. As he points out, it is very good. The author goes into detail about how racial stereotypes affect her choice of food – how she almost goes out of her way not to order what people would expect. Dan sympathizes with her concern. I, on the other hand, don’t. I’ve mentioned before that I’m Chinese, but grew up in the very non-diverse upper middle class white culture of Wisconsin suburbs.

To be totally honest, I’ve always been more concerned with how other Chinese people see me than how anyone else judges me. It’s like the reverse of what the author discusses in her article. When I eat Chinese food, I never think white people are silently thinking I reinforce a stereotype. I’m too busy worrying that the waitress/hostess will assume I speak Chinese or that I won’t understand the menu – things that are to an extent a racial expectation, but things that also will significantly hinder my ability to get the food I want. While these things won’t stop me from going into Chinatown – it will stop me from using for a fork instead of chopsticks (which is the ultimate tip-off you are not Asian enough). Am I conforming to white culture’s stereotype or am I breaking the expectation of my Chinese waiter, who can always seem to tell I might be “not that Chinese”? That sentence alone took way more thinking than I’ve ever put into it before.

What seemed funny to me about the article, was the author seemed to enjoy breaking people’s expectations and being “not that black”. But that expectation breaking is only possible because of the stereotypes that are in place. To refuse the fried chicken that you really want in order to show that the stereotype is wrong – that’s just crazy. And it’s bending to the stereotype just as much as if you felt pressured to order it just because that’s what’s expected. If you really want the chicken, just go ahead and get it. To think that anyone else really cares enough to think that hard about what I’m eating is ridiculous (and vain).

In a way, it seems that the author’s “acceptance”  into white culture is something that makes her feel special and unique. This might be where we differ. Having grown up in the white suburbs, that is where I feel most comfortable, where I don’t stand out, where I fit nicely into everyone’s expectations. However, her “whiteness” also seems to be a disguise sometimes – as if she doesn’t quite fit in all the time – and I wonder, as she never mentions, how she fits into black culture. Does her “not that black”-ness still make her feel special in those situations? Or does it just make her feel like an outsider?



  1. The thing about not wanting to seem too black or too Latino is that we have more negative stereotypes attached to that than Asian stereotypes. There are different and difficult pressures involved with those Asian stereotypes (pressure to succeed, assumptions about hobbies, habits, and intelligence), but I don’t think anyone has ever looked at you or your brothers and been scared or thought that you might be troublemakers. There are assumptions that my ex, Ashley, makes about Hispanic people that she meets that I’m sure she justified by claiming, as I said in my blog, that I’m not really Hispanic, but I’ve worried about meeting girls’ parents and families before. It’s not like I look threatening or dangerous, but when they haven’t met me yet it’s possible they’re thinking one thing before I show up. I think I remember hearing stories from Danielle that her family was apprehensive about Eric before they met him because of the Latino reputation in NYC.

    How she fits into black society would definitely be a great companion piece because I have the same problem when I’m in Miami. I know who I am and I’m reasonably confident in my Spanish, but I know that I’m not really Cuban, as my parents like to remind me, and I don’t think my brothers and I fit in with a lot of our extended family past our childhood histories.

    Ultimately I should probably just be comfortable with myself and my skin, but I’m not there yet.

    • I should clarify that I’ve never been victim to hardcore prejudices or racial hate/violence, but when I do have people look at me in a certain way or make hateful comments about me or people ethnically similar to myself it does make me uncomfortable and freak me out a little. Hence the desire to be incognito sometimes, but the internal struggle to just be myself, however that may be.

      Like the author there’s also the pressure (and this is pretty awful) of being a “credit to my people”. When people laugh and joke with her about not really being black they are offhandedly saying that she is not an other. That there is something about “them” that they’re not able to get along with, but she belongs. I’m sure she’s concerned about being cast out of her group. So part of it is both of us trying to prove that we can be a part of the people who are in charge.

      • True, the Asian stereotype is very different. And I also haven’t had any significant experience with prejudice (probably because I haven’t lived in diverse places).
        But the feeling I got from the article – though not your post – was that it didn’t seem like she was intent on changing the stereotype; it seemed more like she was hiding. I understand concern over outward appearance (clothes, hair, jewelry) because it’s extremely obvious and people have very specific ideas about what’s appropriate. But to worry about something like the food you’re eating is overthinking it. To avoid something like food (which I would say is not something most people make their first impressions off) – especially if you want it – is almost confirming that I should only accept people who act like me or look like me. It gives no framework for seeing cues in a different situation. I’d hope that Danielle’s family has opened up some of their views after meeting Eric and the rest of your family.
        And I would hope that if your friends make comments that make you uncomfortable, that you would say something because they probably don’t realize. I tend to notice this more for off-hand anti-religion comments around people who are religious.

      • Eric and his in-laws get on fantastically.

        As for the article, I think the more important point she’s making deep below the inherent silliness of what food to eat comes to play in the Pinkberry part where the clerk can’t get it past her head that she doesn’t want watermelon and that she’s with the other black people in the yogurt shop. The article is more about belonging and acceptance and her particular solution is to mimic and hide. It may not be the right thing to do and it may prevent understanding and acceptance, but some people are not interested in changing their perceptions. They’ll always offer you watermelon if you’re black and they won’t be interested in accepting you if you don’t conform to their norms. My own uncle says some pretty shitty things about my little brother because he is part black and some of his comments have revolved around the things he eats. I call him out on it, but the point is that something as trivial seeming as the food you eat can be used against you in pretty terrible and hurtful ways. It’s just one way to further categorize and discriminate.

  2. I never really thought about someone judging another person based on what they ate. I found this post and following comments to be very interesting.

    • Thanks for the comment! Glad you found it interesting.

    • Just another chance for someone to separate people into us vs. them

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