The problem with stereotyping is that it presumes guilt before innocence, dictating that someone will behave a certain way because of their race or ethnicity. In the extreme, the results can be devastating, as they were for the late Timothy Cole, a young black man who was exonerated last week for a rape he didn’t commit, after serving 14 of a 25 year sentence and dying in prison in 1999 from complications from asthma.
When Samantha Runnion was plucked from her front yard and found dead only hours later, Dillon was no longer allowed to play outside by himself; when three young boys were found asphyxiated in the trunk of a car, Dillon got a long lecture about never, ever, ever hiding in abandoned refrigerators or cars or any type of enclosure where he might get locked in. He’s gotten lectures about never talking strangers even if they offer puppies or candy; avoiding long curtain cords or giving out personal information on the computer, about knowing that no matter how sad he gets he must always talk to mommy. In each case, horrific news stories about the loss of a child and deep empathy for an anguished mother translated into action steps to avoid this ever happening in our family.
“Oh, of course,” I immediately thought, when I read about Timothy Cole and saw the accompanying photo, his smiling face, full of promise. “This happened because of the “all black men look alike and black men rape white women stereotypes from back then.” This thought was followed by “suppress that thought and do not say it out loud, you racist” followed by “I didn’t make it up those are the societal stereotypes” followed by “I’d like to think this wouldn’t happen today” followed by “but I know these prejudices still abound.”
As part of the majority culture, the question was not about warning Dillon how not to be the victim, but how not to (presumably inadvertently) be the perpetrator, and how to explain this without articulating and thereby perpetuating the underlying stereotypes.
A story on NPR a few days later, related to Black History Month, later gave the entrée. “We studied that in school. Martin Luther King and Rosa Parks were responsible for Civil Rights,” he said with a 7-year-old’s simplicity, as we listened to the story. Here was an invitation to explain that while what he learns during black history month is great, it’s important to remember that African Americans and people of all backgrounds contribute to our history every day, not just in February. Thousands of people stood up and continue to stand up for Civil Rights, and he too can make a difference in history by standing up for what he believes in.
The danger of prejudice is that people become a stereotype or an archetype. By framing the conversation around how everyone has the power to change the world and the obligation to stand up for what is right, we acknowledge that each person is unique. And the only way that we can protect and honor our own individuality is by recognizing it in others. The best way to exonerate Timothy Cole is to make a commitment and teach my child to do this in every interaction, every day. What news stories have resonated with you, where you felt you had to do something? What action have you taken. How do you frame conversations about race, or take steps in your own life to overcome the unconscious bias of society?