Stereotypes Prevent Us from Getting to Know Others

Stereotypes Prevent Us from Getting to Know Others

The single story creates stereotypes, and the problem with stereotypes is not that they are untrue, but that they are incomplete. They make one story become the only story.”

Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie

Once upon a time, in a land called New Jersey, lived a young boy (that would be me) who struggled to fit in and find acceptance with other young boys his age.

I was kind, sensitive, amusing, and highly creative, with a never-ending imagination that always surprised and amazed everyone around me. 

Such traits were not befitting of the societal stereotypes adopted and supported when it came to the male gender and their behaviors. 

But such traits were only one part of my story.

I also enjoyed digging in the dirt behind my parent’s garage with a miniature backhoe.

Riding my bike up and down the street while pretending I was Knight Rider®.

I played video games for hours on end and built ramps, garages, and roadways for the Matchbox® cars I was fascinated with and collected.

One would assume that such a display of little boy behavior would offset those traits that some might believe were more feminine.

But one significant omission stood out: I did not possess an interest or natural aptitude for sports. 

As I grew older, my creativity and imagination dramatically increased, with my fascination for Matchbox® cars transitioning to something much larger, requiring gasoline and a driver’s license.

In high school, I was prolific in art classes, an editor for the school newspaper, and a stage manager for theatrical productions, all while working part-time at my father’s service station after school.

However, one thing never did change: I still never found an interest or natural aptitude for sports, nor did I become intensely aggressive and competitive, stereotypes which have become hallmarks for incorrectly defining masculinity.

As you can imagine, when seen through the eyes of a stereotypical society, this detachment from sports alienated me from my male counterparts.

They found it challenging to engage and interact with a boy who did not enjoy watching, playing, and obsessing about sports.

Such alienation left me feeling shy and insecure, doing whatever I could to blend in rather than stand out in society.

While not so overwhelming as a young boy, when youth seemed to suppress gender stereotypes, it became almost unbearable in high school, where boys and girls alike tended to define one’s masculinity on athleticism in both appearance and action.

In his novel Where Things Come Back, author John Corey Whaley writes, “Dr. Webb says that most people see the world in bubbles. This keeps them comfortable with their place and the places of others. What he means is that most people, in order to feel okay about who they are and where they stand in relation to others, automatically group everyone into stereotypical little bunches.”

“This keeps them comfortable with their place and the places of others.” A powerful line that sums up stereotypes perfectly.

Stereotypes are created and supported to keep like-minded people together while averting the need for individuals to engage and explore with others who might be different from them. 

Building relationships outside our comfort zone is challenging but necessary toward understanding that differences should not divide us but unite us.

Let me provide a real-world example.

In my junior year of high school, the drama club held auditions for Thornton Wilder’s popular farce about love and money, The Matchmaker, of which I was on the casting team.

A quick side note: though I was the stage manager of the production, I wound up playing the male lead’s housekeeper, Gertrude, when the original actress became academically ineligible at the last minute. It was one of life’s highlights. You can read all about it here.

One student reading for Barnaby Tucker, a store apprentice and comic sidekick, surprised all of us sitting at the casting table one afternoon. It was our high school quarterback.

At first, we thought he was in the wrong place, but he came in prepared and eager to audition for the part. We were all pleasantly surprised by his audition, and in the end, we all unanimously agreed that he deserved the part.

While the two of us shared a few classes over the years, that was the extent of our connection as we traveled in different social circles.

But theatrical productions are more like families, and it is impossible not to engage and communicate with everyone, from the person managing the props to the leads.

And so, as time passed, something surprising happened between the high school quarterback and myself: we became friendly with each other.

Yes, he was an incredibly popular athlete everyone wanted to befriend, and I was a shy, insecure theater geek who found himself more popular with teachers than students. 

But once you set aside all the societal stereotypes cast upon him and me, you were able to truly get to know the person as a person, no matter what society chose to define us as.

One night during rehearsals, I remember him saying, “You’re a hilarious guy,” a quality I reserved for those I felt most comfortable with rather than intimidated by. He appreciated my thoughts and ideas, and conversations felt unforced.

As for him, he was incredibly down to earth, did not talk about sports incessantly, and had a kind, welcoming nature I was not expecting. 

But the greatest amazement came when he started saying hello to me in the hallways filled with other students gazing on with judgmental eyes. Me, the shy, insecure teenager that wanted nothing more than to blend into the crowd, was now standing out.

Because he acknowledged me, something incredible started to happen. Suddenly, other football players and those traveling in more popular social circles began to acknowledge me, too. 

While I would not go so far as to say I was now part of the in-crowd, my classmates were now engaging with me instead of ignoring me, and I did not doubt the high school quarterback was the reason.

Stereotypes Should NOT Define Us

I remember asking the high school quarterback once why he decided to audition for The Matchmaker, given it was so out of character for him. His answer astonished me.

“I don’t only want to be known for sports. I want to be remembered for other things, too.”

Far too often in life, we allow ourselves to be defined by very narrow traits, which frequently support society’s misguided stereotypes and limit the persona we share with the world.

The high school quarterback above understood that we are all more than our interests and abilities, and he set out to try new things and share new experiences beyond what was just comfortable and secure.

Those unexpected experiences often lead to the discovery that just because we are all different does not mean we cannot build strong relationships with each other.

While the quarterback and I had made assumptions about the other based on legacy stereotypes fitting our personas, our coming together revealed that such stereotypes are NOT the only story.

If only we took the time to get to know people for who they really are, not what they represent on the outside, not what they represent for us as we all compete for attention and relevance in a hypercritical society.

My high school years were challenging as I struggled to transform from a child into a young adult.

But the story above reminds me of how important it is to be a leader rather than a follower. To do what is right and recognize people for who they really are rather than what we assume they are.

Author and self-help guru Brene Brown writes, “I define connection as the energy that exists between people when they feel seen, heard, and valued; when they can give and receive without judgement.”

We all want to be seen, heard, and valued.

It is time we stopped grouping “everyone into stereotypical little bunches” and got to know and respect others for the differences that make them unique.

Chances are, you will be astounded at how wonderful such individuals genuinely are.


2 thoughts on “Stereotypes Prevent Us from Getting to Know Others

  1. Craig, your story sounds extremely familiar to me. As fait may have it, my oldest sister was very attracted to the highschool basketball star. Though I was a senior, still in highschool, both my sister and the basketball star had graduated. One day my oldest sister entered my parents house to visit. She had married and they lived near by. I’ll never forget the look on her face when she saw me embracing and kissing the basketball star, her long time crush. I learned early on that you only cheat yourself if you don’t venture from your comfort zone.

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