Through the Looking Glass: How Stereotypes Change When You Look the Other Way
I am an American Jewish liberal living in the Australian state of Queensland. Keep that in mind.
Queensland, or rather the entire northern part of Australia, is saturated not only by kangaroos, palm trees and sand, but also Catholic people, Catholic churches and schools, an Army base, an Air Force base, and thousands of Aborigines (Indigenous Australians)--- three-fourths of whom I have encountered wandering and mumbling on the street, barefoot and apparently intoxicated.
My closest American friends here are Catholic. And passionately republican. Almost all of them went to Catholic schools (and go to Catholic universities) and sought out Catholic churches on Easter. They love hamóham day at the cafeteria is a happy day for most people around me. Most of my friends here have never met a Jew. There are people from other parts of the world here who have never met an American.
My American friends and I have been warned several times by other students to stay away from Army soldiers, or as most people here say, AJs (Army Jerks). In fact, the soldiers we metómost of whom were not jerks óare so used to hearing the nickname, they call themselves AJs. My soldier friends and fellow students warn us to steer clear of Aborigines. I later discovered a friend of mine here was an Aborigine. A friend who took an "Aboriginal Studies" course told me of the ridiculous nature of most stereotypes of Aborigines.
Who should I believe?
I constantly face, create, cross off the mental list, recreate, get angry about, and finally just face the fact that there always have been and always will be stereotypes.
Please excuse the long introduction. Itís necessary to make my point.
If you have time, start over and reread the list of groups that surround me. Pay close attention to your reactions and attempt to count the number of times stereotypes of those groups flew into your mind. Iím not pointing my finger accusingly. Everyone forms stereotypes about unfamiliar groups. Itís not necessarily a bad thing. It is important, however, to recognize these beliefs as stereotypes and to not let yourself act negatively toward groups or to dismiss these people as not worth any of your time or friendship.
I never thought I lived in a bubble until I arrived here. At home, I happen to associate primarily with Jews or with those who know a fair number of Jews, most of whom are still rooting for John Kerry. I enjoy meeting people from different cultures and religions, who had different upbringings. Still, I can safely say I have never lived among so many people who are different from me in so many ways. Itís mind-blowing, really.
The first night in Australia, I sat in a restaurant in Cairns with three American girls I had met only hours before. I donít recall the exact comment I made, but I cut myself off mid-sentence and said, "Wait, you all voted for Kerry, right?" Six eyes stared back without expression. One by one, I heard, "NoÖI didnít." I felt extremely ignorant for assuming. Back home, I could safely take political stances for granted, and did. I felt like an even bigger jerk when stereotypes of these people blanketed my mind and I couldnít help but feel angry with them for voting for George W. Bush. At the same time, I felt angrier at myself for assuming that that necessarily is a purely negative thing.
I thought we could not get along. We would probably disagree about everything else, too. Itís not that I had never met a republican before. But the people with whom I associate, again mostly Jews, all voted for my preference. Iím used to belonging to a group that still mourns for Kerry. I wasnít sure how I could hang out on a daily basis with the celebratory crowd.
Those girls are now my best friends. I am learning an endless amount about completely different belief systems. I guess I never stopped to think there could be another kind of "right." Rather, I learned there is definitely not one kind.
I never felt so closed-minded before I got here. I thought other people were "set in their ways," I didn't think I was. I have the occasional argument with one of my friends on my trip who is a quite zealous Catholic republican. If the heat of the argument reaches boiling, our other friend interrupts with, "So, how about that wallaby bouncing around over there?" I take deep breaths and apologize for being so stubborn and one-sided. With a calm smile, she says she completely respects my views and just believes her own, thatís all. I redden as I recall my angry snapping, arguing my opinion as if I was trying to explain to her how the world actually works. Take it from me, attempting to do so is tiring, probably because itís impossible.
At the end of the day, former stereotypes I once considered fact evaporate in my mind and I literally laugh at how wrong I was. I had formed all kinds of ideas without any effort. Itís so incredibly easy; itís natural.
I could list at least 100 stereotypes of each group I live with and see day-to-day. I could tell you all about 25 stereotypes of Australians that I arrived with. However, I could not name a single stereotype that I today believe in about Catholics, Aborigines, Republicans, the Army or the Air Force.
A lot of people say stereotypes are based on truth. Well, I agree to a point. Some Aborigines are alcoholics, some republicans "donít even know why they voted for Bush," some people in the army are indeed jerks and some Catholics do believe their religion is the only real religion.
However, the reverse is true in each case. Some Jewish democrats have alcohol or drug problems or the belief that they are "right" because they are Jewish and voted for Kerryósome voted that way just because Kerry is not Bush, nor is he a republican. There are a myriad of people in every different group. The best way to find out about an individual, I have found, is to toss in the mindís wastebasket all the preconceptions you may hold about someone you see protesting passionately against abortion rights, and have a chat. Perhaps you should at least initially steer the conversation away from abortionóif you disagree, that is.
If you think you donít form stereotypes, travel to a foreign country where you are the minority in more ways than by one, and you will find yourself constantly discovering how varied people truly are and how your mind copes with shocks to your system. Even if you are aware that you stereotype, travel anyway. You might really learn something.