They attempt to speak though no sound escapes. They attempt to move, but hit a wall instead. They try again and again but keep running into the same barriers. Often the people around them cannot look past the box to the person it encloses.
These boxes are all composed of stereotypes, truths, and casual statements of ignorance. They have the power to confine, insult, compliment, or forcibly hold people within them. Exceptional individuals, entire cultures are silenced or amplified depending on how they fit within these boxes of cultural assumption.
Assumptions go beyond what can be seen
Sophomore Hana Martinez identifies with Puerto Rican culture, but said that because of her fair skin tone she is often labeled as a white American. “[People’s] perspective of me shifts when they figure out that I’m not white. It’s just a different attitude,” Martinez said.
She said that people often ask her how to swear in Spanish, which she does speak, “…and it’s uncomfortable because they’re just walking up to me and saying a bunch of terrible words…it’s not fun.”
Similar to Martinez, freshman Numi Katz, who identifies as Israeli and practices Judaism, states that people do not realize that she is Israeli until she specifically says it.
“Most people don’t know because I don’t have an accent,” Katz said.
While this misguided assumption does allow for there to be misunderstandings about her culture, Katz does not believe that people necessarily harbor bad intentions when asking questions or making an assumption.
There’s a fine line between insensitive and offensive talk
“Of course there are always ignorant, culturally insensitive comments that follow up my statement of being an Israeli immigrant but, for the most part, I think people are just curious,” Katz said.
On the other hand, Martinez hears many racial jokes directed towards her: “[Some students] at SPA like to make pickup lines or jokes that revolve around [Latin American culture]…jokes that are borderline offensive,” she said.
Martinez strives to make it clear that she is a proud Puerto Rican, despite the jokes which follow.“I think that being Puerto Rican is an important part of me so I want people to know.” She wishes people would realize and acknowledge that “everybody expresses themselves differently, so just because somebody acts or looks a certain way doesn’t mean they don’t identify with a certain group.”
She states that ideas people develop about her based on stereotypes of Puerto Rican culture dictate multiple parts of her identity. However, she does not believe that an individual’s culture decides all elements of their identity. “You can’t assume that one culture connects with one religion,” Martinez said.
Stereotypes don’t bring anyone closer to cultural understanding
Most of the time, students may feel that they have to brush off the stereotypes they are associated with and pretend they are not bothered. However, this can be difficult when stereotypes, boxes, begin to confine or define the cultures intrinsic to most people’s identity.
Sophomore Enzo Vinholi who identifies as Brazilian, American, and Italian, states that he often hears pickpocketing jokes directed towards his Brazilian heritage. “I like to think that I can take [offensive jokes] as non-offensive, but when you look at Brazil, for example, and the poverty struggle and people having to [pickpocket] for a living it can sometimes make me angry.”
Similarly, junior Elena Youngdale who identifies as Chinese and American, said “It bugs me because it’s like I’m supposed to be good at [something], but then sometimes I’m not good at it….I feel like people are just saying ‘You have to be this if you’re Chinese,’ but I’m not, so then what am I?”
While so many aspects of stereotypes impact individuals negatively, perhaps there are some which, while they can never define every single individual, hold some truth.
Junior Danish Mahmood who identifies as a Pakistani-American Muslim, said that, “In terms of terrorism and Islam, there is no truth in those assumptions…But…I mean, there would have to be a population of ‘smart Asians’ in order for that stereotype to exist,” Mahmood said.
He tends to respond humorously to people stating the smart Asian stereotype but realizes that not everyone sees it that way.
Mahmood does, however, understand why that stereotype may be true and why so many Asians fit it: “Life in Pakistan, India, Sri Lanka, China, and so on, is so much more rigorous than the life in America. In America, you can become successful in life by pursuing a sport, an instrument, or a role in some play. In Pakistan, you become successful by becoming an engineer, a doctor or an architect.”
He states that the mentality of immigrant or first generation American parents who’ve experienced the pressures in other cultures tends to result in high standards academically, which is an element that could influence stereotypes about Asians.
People combat multiple stereotypes and assumptions
Other stereotypes and assumptions severely box and label based on religion and skin color combined, and senior Aliza Rahman elaborates on her experiences with this. Rahman identifies as a Pakistani-American Muslim. A stereotype she feels personally is the Islamophobic view of Islam and the misguided belief that Muslims are terrorists.
Another assumption is that all Muslims are uneducated, that “everyone in Pakistan lives in villages [without] a lot of education. [And] people usually assume that I wasn’t born in America or can’t speak English very well,” Rahman said.
“The reality of stereotypes is that [they] infiltrate every aspect of one’s life, whether you like it or not” she said.
Cultural assumptions and stereotypes cause harm
While more general and less directly insulting assumptions are tolerated more or less by Mahmood, others regarding Pakistan and Islam make him feel as if the world is expecting him to do harm. He said that when he tells people of his religion or ethnicity, they respond with questions like “Isn’t that a dangerous place?” or “Aren’t they in the news everyday?”
However, Mahmood does his best to combat these views of Islam through presenting his culture how he truly views it, something quite the contrary to stereotypes formed from information gathered in the news.
“If the religion of Islam forces its followers to kill 130+ children in a Pakistani school, then I am not a Muslim. It is simple as that. But I am a Muslim and I know that Islam is a religion of peace, love and benevolence…If you want your culture to stay alive, you have to defend it – but do so peacefully.”
It is every person’s duty to look beyond the boxes
Culture, race, ethnicity, gender, sexuality, or any similar trait are all ideas which posses unique meanings for each individual who identifies with that specific trait. While there are overlaps and gray areas between cultural truth, individual truth and stereotype, looking beyond the box at the person within should be the goal for all students.
Whether someone is pounding their fists on the walls, sitting comfortably inside or fill out each corner and fit the box perfectly, they are still individuals. Finding similarities between cultural stereotypes and the people of that culture can be easy, but there will always be those who stray outside of society’s expectations. Expanding one’s knowledge of the truths and untruths alike, and understanding the good and the bad which accompany being boxed, is key.
There are endless experiences and interactions with cultural stereotypes—not all bad—but also not all stemming from truth. Acknowledging the individual stories, and how they may or may not fit a larger picture of a group, can help deepen conversations, expand views and break down boxes.