Still Having Difficulties with the Word “Stereotype” on an Ethos Level

    It started in the fifth grade when I was introduced to a word which was somewhat difficult to spell, but more difficult to understand.
The word was “stereotype.”
    I broke it into two words, but my teacher explained it had nothing to do with an actual stereo that spun albums and bellowed music through speakers.
    Mr. Lee gave me the Britannica dictionary definition, “an often unfair and untrue belief that many people have about all people or things with a particular characteristic.”
    I couldn’t wrap my head around this definition. I’m sure he gave examples, but I teared up, upset with myself for failing to understand the meaning.
    I was born in Eloise, Michigan and raised in East Oakland where I visually understood what diversity looked like. I attended public schools with students who were Mexican, Black, Chinese, Native American, Asian Indian and white.
    I am half Mexican and half white, which my dad’s “white ethnic side” includes Irish, German and Cherokee Indian.
    Later in life, I learned Oakland was one of the most diverse cities in the world. I finally understood the meaning of “stereotype,” based on a more detailed explanation with, “an assumption about what someone will do or how they will behave based on what social groups they belong to, such as race,” and “widely held, but fixed and oversimplified image or idea of a particular type of person or thing.”
    Now at age 59, I still struggle with the word, but it’s a different struggle.
    I wish the word didn’t exist. Or rather, I wish its verb didn’t exist; meaning people wouldn’t stereotype people, places or things.
    I had an amazing English professor who gave an assignment to attend an event or visit a place never experienced before. First: write what it might be like. Afterward, write about what actually happened.
    While, at its core, this was a writing assignment, I believe it was about stereotyping.
    I chose a shelter in Antioch to serve dinner to homeless people. My preconceived write-up included fears of unsafe conditions, horrible smells from people who didn’t shower and who used vulgar language or had violent tendencies.
    My post write-up portrayed a different story and while I’m sure some shelters might look like my initial “stereotype,” I did not experience it. I saw clean, calm, hungry and gracious people. It moved me so much, I volunteered at that shelter after the assignment was completed.
    On a Thanksgiving Day, I served food to homeless people, as a volunteer at Glide Memorial Church in San Francisco. The line covered several blocks. Again, I encountered thankful, kind humans who needed food.
    As a professor, I assign this same project to my students, who ultimately turn in their reports with a newfound appreciation for the experience, and often a change of heart and a negative stereotype replaced with a positive and accurate conclusion.
    This might be too utopian to think it would be great to live in a world where rather than everyone automatically stereotyping people, places and things (even creatures great and small), they would go out and experience firsthand, embrace and ultimately celebrate all people, places and things.

Charleen Earley can be reached at editor@theorindanews.com.

(Charleen Earley, Photographer)
Charleen Earley learned early on the word “stereotype” had nothing to do with an actual stereo that spun albums and bellowed music through speakers.