I grew up learning that Negroes smell different. Men are good at math. Catholics want to take over the world which is why they have lots of babies. Germans are cold-blooded. Jews are good with money but they are cheapskates. Mexicans are lazy and slow.
The list went on. Queers are dangerous and sick. Women are bad drivers and can’t be given responsibility because they are too emotional. Doctors play golf and bankers are conservative. Japanese are smart. Politicians make money off of war.
These are not bad things, I learned. It is merely the truth, and it is always good to tell the truth.
Every group had a disparaging name, the Congregationalists and Lutherans, the Baptists, the Hari-Krishnas, the French, the Indians, and the Russians, even college graduates and poor people. Terms like “spic,” “egg-head,” and “kike” were said with a smile, because we should feel sorry for such people. Each name announced, “Don’t trust them” and “We are better than them.”
When I met people outside the descriptions — a woman who was a good driver, a boy who was better in Latin than math, a Mexican with a successful business — I realized there were exceptions to the rules I was taught.
Exceptions. I was female but I drove fast and well. Was I an exception? Did the description of the group limit the exceptions? If one generous Jew existed, if one woman was smart enough and unemotional enough to be President, if one politician believed in principles above personal gain, did the stereotype of the group silence that exceptional person? Could the stereotype control a group instead of describing it?
I grew up in America, the land of the free. As an American, I am a mutt. My blood is not pure, so it is easy for me to believe that diversity is good. Acceptance of diversity makes a person and a people stronger. The American dream infers that diverse people can live together peaceably. It is not only that we can, but we should diversify if we are to be resilient.
Diversity exists because we let people be who they are instead of forcing them to fit the specifications of the group. Diversity is the opposite of stereotyping. Diversity exists because of the exception, the exceptional, the individual. The individual can pull himself or herself up, or down, by his/her own bootstraps. The idea of the individual is my true American heritage.
An acquaintance told me today, “It was an Arab who killed those people last night on the Promenade,” as if that explained everything. I stared at him so he continued, “They hate us and they won’t stop until they kill us all. They hate Americans too.” This is the man who tells me, “All Americans are fat.” It is his nature to generalize.
Before I am an American, I am an individual. I am from the United States, and I am skinny. Not wealth or lack of it, not parentage or religion, not skin color, birth place, or gender predicts the life of an individual. The individual, not the group, is responsible for his/her choices. To think otherwise is to stereotype, the trap of false reasoning, the trap that kills individuality.
The man responsible for the attack in Nice had lived in France since his adolescence. His family came from Tunisia where the language is French. It has a population smaller than New York City and was French for 75 years. The killer was not religious or political, and was not part of radical Islam. He was in the middle of a messy divorce, which can drive anyone over the edge, especially in the face of happy people during a celebration. He is proof that killers come in many shapes and sizes.
Crazy people exist. Angry people exist, and terrorists exist. War exists. Political groups organize violent events, or take credit for them, or blame other groups for them. In 1986 Patrick Sherrill killed 14 of his co-workers at a post office in Oklahoma without being a fanatic of any sort. 700 years ago, the Catholics tried to purge the world of infidels, and not long ago at all, Hitler wanted to rid the world of Jews, homosexuals, cripples, and a list of other categories, to improve the world. Violence is not exclusive to one era or organization. There is no accurate stereotype for violence.
Stereotypes are easy. Arabs are bad. Arabs are not French. Arabs are Muslim. They are killers. They hate white people. They live off the social services of other countries. They are dirty, they lie, they dress funny just to provoke us, and they are dangerous. It’s us versus them.
I know people who say such things, but they are wrong. I know that every group has good and bad people in it because I believe in the individual instead of stereotypes. We all contribute to the culture of violence with our silence and our reactive fear, but that is not the same as launching a grenade into a crowd. That is the terrible choice of an individual.
As a child, I was taught certain things, but as an adult I get to choose what to believe. I hold onto the ideas of the individual and of diversity, because I have let go of the blindness born from stereotypes. I choose to associate with people who grieve over the 84 deaths in Nice on the night of the Bastille Day celebration, and then transform that grief into creative ideas to increase tolerance and peace instead of hatred and fear.