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How stereotypes almost made me change who I am

Don’t judge a book by its cover, and don’t judge a person by their colour
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“Say it, say it, say it!”

The chants were coming from my classmates. It was one of those long bus rides home after school. My friend had a speaker and was pretending he was hosting a mini-party. He started playing a classic Jay Z & Kanye West song. 

As the bass boomed through the bus, my friend seemed like he knew every line. About halfway through a profanity-laden verse, he paused the song and held the phone out to me like it was a microphone, begging me to finish the line.

“C’mon Mekhi, who’s in Paris? Who is in Paris, bro?”

He was urging me to say a word that I did not feel comfortable saying. It was a word that different people had different feelings about, but I was intent to never say it.

I was conflicted between the desire to please my friend and my own personal values. I felt my classmates’ eyes on me as they stared in anticipation. Sweating, anxious, and unsure of what to do, I started to wonder how on earth I got to this level of insecurity in the first place. 

For a lot of my life, I didn’t think about the effects that the way I look had on the people around me. I didn’t think that the cashier was following me around the store because of how I looked or that I kept getting picked first for the pickup basketball game because of the colour of my skin. Ignorance is bliss, they say.

Obviously, I knew what the colour of my skin was. I knew that my Mom was from Jamaica and that my Dad was from Ghana. I knew that I had a multifaceted identity that often boiled down into one word. I just didn’t think about how that had an effect on the people around me.

I wasn’t sure if it was my heightened consciousness or the transition of moving to Canada for high school, but as soon as I turned 17, it all hit me in one fell swoop. 

“You dress like a white boy.” 

“Do you rap? Freestyle for us!” 

“You’re the whitest Black person I’ve ever met.” 

When I came to U of T, I thought that I would escape such comments. But they followed me like a nagging headache. 

“I’m surprised, you’re very well spoken.”

“Why am I not interested in you? I don’t know… you’re just not Black enough.” 

The people who said these things to me ranged from professors, to love interests, to my closest friends, to complete strangers. Regardless of who was saying what, they all had the same effect: they made me wonder if I was really Black.

Over time, the words took their toll. Every now and then, I’d look down at my hands, just to make sure, and laugh at myself for even trying. I started wondering how I was getting shunned by people that looked just like me. Eventually, I knew that they weren’t talking about the colour of my skin — it was something more nuanced. People could obviously see that I was visibly Black, but they were saying that I didn’t act the part. 

You see, Blackness isn’t just skin deep. Blackness is a political statement, a declaration of your style, a music preference, and the way you speak. Blackness is the cautiousness that you carry with you when you walk in certain neighbourhoods. Blackness is the people you hang out with. It’s a malleable concept that changes based on what people believe it is at any certain time. 

However, often people will associate Blackness with a single set of characteristics, affiliations, and interests. I started to wonder if people really knew the effect of their preconceived notions, no matter their race, class, or creed. 

The origin of stereotypes

Communications professors Brian L. Ott and Robert L. Mack describe stereotypes as “constructing misleading and reductionist representations of a minority racial group.” They deem the media to be a key way in which stereotypes are disseminated.

Movies like Friday and Boyz n the Hood align Black people with gun violence and street gangs. Songs like “Bad And Boujee” by Migos, featuring Lil Uzi Vert, and “Mask Off” by Future glorify drug use and the objectification of women. Mind you, I do love both of those movies, and I used to get excited when “Bad And Boujee” played on the radio — but I know how to separate the media I’m ingesting from the real world. 

The problem is that many people don’t know how to do this, and I’m reminded of that every time people ask me if I wear a durag or sag my pants. While I’m sure that some people associate themselves with the depictions of people who look like them in the media, a study from the National Research Group showed that only one in every three African Americans feel that they are accurately represented in the media. There are a plethora of different experiences for the other 66 per cent. 

Some would argue that there is such a thing as a ‘positive stereotype’ — but while some stereotypes may be positive in terms of diction, they could still have negative effects on certain groups. 

A common one is the stereotype that the Asian community is good at math. While at first glance, this may seem like a positive stereotype, I have had friends tell me that it has resulted in heightened academic expectations for them, which were, in turn, quite pressuring. Another common ‘positive’ stereotype would be the belief that Black individuals have great natural athletic ability. The only problem with both of these notions is that they disregard those of us who aren’t good at sports or academics. If you don’t align perfectly with the stereotype, you find yourself ostracized by people who look just like you. It’s a painful experience. 

It’s also important to think about how most stereotypes are rooted in some form of truth. The prevalence of Black athletes in national sports leagues like the NFL and the NBA might have led to the athletic stereotype. The performance of Asian individuals in standardized tests may have resulted in the intelligent stereotype. The problem is, when people think that every single member of these groups have these characteristics, it becomes a constant game of catch-up for those who don’t.

The bigger picture

I was sitting in history class one day when my teacher referenced Stockholm syndrome. Named after a bank robbery in Stockholm, Sweden in 1974, the term describes the strange phenomenon wherein hostages develop feelings of affection for their captor. Usually, these feelings are caused by a significant amount of time spent between the victim and the captor. 

In my experience, the effect of stereotypes on individual people can be directly related to Stockholm syndrome. Grappling with the intricacies of my identity almost felt like I was wrapped in ideological chains that had been weighing me down for so long that I actually considered giving up resisting entirely. It got to the point where I didn’t think that I was capable of achieving things if I hadn’t seen someone who looked like me achieve them.

I was left with two options: be true to myself, even if it meant not relating to other people, or change who I was just to fit in. 

Why was the situation so dire? Because in every conversation, hangout, or weekend with my friends, I could tell that they wanted me to be the type of Black person that they saw on TV. But I quickly realized that no matter how hard I tried, I wouldn’t be able to act like the person that everyone wanted me to, and it was all because of my upbringing.

Four years after I was born, my father got a job opportunity, and my tiny feet that had just touched Canadian soil were whisked off of it as our family moved to India. It was there that I spent 10 years of my childhood, and it was there that I made my earliest memories. 

I bounced back and forth between local schools until I finally ended up at an international school where I met a bunch of disorientated third-culture kids just like myself. While I lived in a place that was geographically disconnected from the Western world, my social world was inundated with it. I would watch Jimmy Fallon Lip Sync Battle videos during my spare time, and when Drake released “Hotline Bling,” all of my friends and I huddled around a table to watch his dance moves. 

However, I wasn’t around people that looked like me or that were from the same place as me. It was obvious that I did not have the same cultural experiences as many Black Canadians that I’d later be around all the time. I was like a square peg trying to squeeze into a round hole — with every attempt, the fit just seemed more futile. 

With no other option, I chose to live my life the best way I could: unapologetically being myself. That meant being the only Black person at some debate tournaments and wearing converse to school because I thought they were more comfortable than Jordans. As I did this, I started to realize the dangerous effect of stereotypes on the people that they are created to work against. 

The conclusion

For those of you who may have felt a bit guilty reading this: try to be a bit more open-minded with your preconceptions. Individuals have many different experiences that make each of us unique. While I might have many things in common with my racialized friends, we are in no way one and the same. 

For those of you who are on the receiving end of negative stereotypes, fight against them. Prove that they aren’t true by defying them with every fibre of your being. Know that there is someone else out there like you too. 

Even though I was not this knowledgeable on that bus back in high school, I had enough self-respect to stay true to who I was. Refusing to let language define me, I declined to say the word, pushed the phone away, and opened my lunch box to scavenge for leftovers. 

Unfortunately, that wasn’t the last time I had to deal with that specific situation. I continue to struggle with my identity to this day, and I wish the solution were always as easy as pushing a phone away. It’s hard to see yourself a certain way when the people around you see something different. In order for me to escape my prior demons, I had to surround myself with good people and become more confident. It’s been a journey. 

At the end of the day, many of the inequalities we see in life — racism, microaggressions, and stereotypes — can be connected to one thing: a lack of empathy. If we, as humans, could truly understand what it is like to undergo the situations others are facing, it would cause an emotional reckoning that would make conversations a lot easier. So the next time you see yourself holding a stereotype against any group of people, make an effort to put yourself in their shoes. 

At the end of the day, we all know who is in Paris. In fact, Jay Z or Kanye would probably have no trouble telling you exactly who is in Paris. But we don’t all say that word, we don’t all walk a certain way, and we don’t all talk a certain way. The sooner everyone understands that, the better off we will all be.

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