Blinded by stereotypes
Charlene, 16, says that when we make assumptions about people, we don’t see who they really are.
‘‘Let’s take pictures!”
After being cooped up in the U.S. Capitol for more than 10 hours, my friends and I were eager to document our fun outside of work. We’d been working in the Senate as pages, delivering messages between the Capitol and Senate offices. We huddled in front of the Iwo Jima Memorial, taking direction from one of the pages for each pose. Lion roar pose. Model pose. Deep-thinking pose. And then, “ASIAN POSE!”
He pulled at his eyes to imitate slanted Asian eyes and did the victory sign that people do in Asia (when you form a “V” with your index and middle finger). Some followed his lead, but I noticed others were uncomfortable. I didn’t know what to do since I was Asian, so I said, “I’ll be right back” and stood off to the side.
I heard jokes and stereotypes about my race throughout my month as a Senate Page. At first it didn’t bother me, but the more they made jokes, the more I feared they actually believed what they said.
Working in Washington, D.C., was the first time I had ever been distinguished by my race. Living in Walnut, a suburb of Los Angeles, I forget Asians are a minority in the United States because there are so many of us in Walnut.
I applied to be a page to learn politics first-hand. Senators sponsor high school juniors to serve for a session each summer. I was excited to meet everyone because they’d be from across the country.
On the first day, the Sergeant at Arms, who is like the law enforcer of the Senate, told us that we would be treated as federal employees, meaning that discrimination, including racial jokes, would not be tolerated. It seemed so overdramatic. At school I heard racial jokes all the time. I knew they weren’t the nicest things but I didn’t think they offended anyone because they were meant to be funny.
What do you my grades have to do with my race?
Following orientation, one page asked me about my GPA. When I told him, he rolled his eyes and said, “Of course, you’re Asian, why did I even ask?” Because it was the first day, I wanted to show that I could take jokes, so I just laughed it off.
I wanted to make sure people didn’t think I was uncomfortable being the only Asian girl (there was one other Asian, a boy, in the group of 40). One time, I told my roommates I only took showers during the day, since I was taught that sleeping with wet hair caused headaches. I called it one of my “Asian antics.” But it’s really a “Charlene Lee’s family antic” and we happen to be Asian. I think that since other people saw that I was able to laugh at my race, they thought it would be fine if they did too.
Some stereotypes were actually compliments, but those were just as irritating. Many of the girls talked about the straightness of my “Asian hair” and the clearness of my “Asian skin.” Others called me a “tight Asian” because I was talkative and sometimes bent the rules. But then I realized that if I were considered “tight” because I was different, that would mean they considered most Asians nerdy, awkward and shy. It made me feel like people automatically assume that we all fit into one category. I was scared that all anyone would ever see was an Asian girl.
Even though it bothered me, I wouldn’t say anything. I didn’t want people to be uncomfortable around me.
One night, my three roommates and I were discussing our religions when one said she was Mormon. I was excited because I had never met a Mormon before. I agreed when she asked me if I wanted to go with her to church.
I realized I made assumptions too
As we were waiting for the service to begin, I tried to think of everything I’d heard about Mormonism, which was living in Utah and practicing polygamy (have multiple marriages at the same time). I was embarrassed that I didn’t even know if they still practiced polygamy (I know now that they don’t).
My friend explained how Mormons belong to a ward, which is a church branch, and members of it became a second family. Around me, I saw families, single people and elderly couples, hugging and making small talk as they greeted each other. No one questioned me for being there. They smiled, introduced themselves and asked if I was staying for Sunday school, acting as if I was a regular member who came every week.
I realized that there must be so much more to this religion than the stereotypes. I had always liked to think that I was cultured enough to know about different religions, but I was perfectly comfortable basing everything I knew about Mormons on stereotypes.
A few days later, I realized that this was exactly what the other pages had done to me. They didn’t make jokes to be racist or mean. They were just imitating what everyone else was doing, without realizing that the jokes and assumptions they made were offensive.
Before, I never talked about my culture when I met people. It didn’t seem important. But when I got back from D.C., I wanted to talk about it because I didn’t want people to continue thinking these stereotypes were true.
One time my friend Sammie, who is Jewish, and I were swapping stories about our cultures. I was telling her about Asian etiquette, like how you have to eat whatever a host offers and how it’s rude to point your chopsticks at someone. She told me about Passover, a holiday when when people hunt for hidden matzoh (Jewish flat bread) and win money. I realized how much more willing I was to talk about my race than when I was in D.C., mostly because my friend showed an interest in learning about my culture instead of generalizing about it.
Now I feel proud to share my culture with others because it helps to end stereotypes. Even I am guilty of them, but if we try to understand other people’s cultures, we will use them less. If people understand who I am as an individual, they will see past race and see me as me.
Other stories by this writer …
Testing my patience. Teachers focus too much on standardized tests, says Charlene, 14, instead of inspiring us to think for ourselves. (October 2007)