It started in the fifth grade when I was first introduced to a word that was somewhat difficult to spell, but more difficult to understand.
The word was “stereotype.”
I tried to break it down into two words, “stereo” and “type” but my teacher explained it had nothing to do with an actual stereo that spun record albums and bellowed out sounds through speakers.
Instead, Mr. Lee gave me the Britannica dictionary definition of the word, “an often unfair and untrue belief that many people have about all people or things with a particular characteristic.”
I couldn’t wrap my head around this definition at that young age. I’m sure he gave me examples at the time, but I literally teared up, upset with myself mostly, for failing to understand what this word meant.
I was born in Eloise, Michigan, but raised in East Oakland. In looking at my community surroundings, I visually understood what diversity looked like. I attended public schools with students who were Mexican, Black, Chinese, American Indian and white.
I am mixed race; half Mexican, half white and my “white ethnic side” from my dad, is Irish, German and Cherokee Indian descent.
Later in life, I learned Oakland was one of the most diverse cities in the world. Also, later in life, I finally understood the meaning of “stereotype”– based on a more detailed explanation with, “an assumption about what someone will do or how they will behave based on what social groups they belong to, such as race,” and “widely held, but fixed and oversimplified image or idea of a particular type of person or thing.”
Now age at 59, I still struggle with that word, but it’s a different sort of struggle.
I wish that word didn’t exist – or rather – I wish its verb didn’t exist; meaning, I wish people wouldn’t stereotype people, places or things.
I had an amazing English professor at Los Medanos College, Jeff Mitchell. He gave us an assignment to go to an event or place one has never experienced before – but first write about what that experience might be like. Later, after attending the place or event, write about what was experienced.
While this was a writing assignment, at its core, I believe it was about stereotyping.
I chose to go to a shelter in Antioch to serve dinner to a line of homeless people. My preconceived write-up talked about fears of unsafe conditions, horrible smells of people living on streets and I also envisioned some people using vulgar language towards me and against each other.
My post write-up portrayed a different story and while I’m sure some shelters might look like my initial “stereotype,” I did not experience it. I saw clean people, calm, hungry and gracious. It moved me so much; I ended up volunteering more time at the shelter after the assignment was done.
Down the road, I volunteered time at Glide Memorial Church in San Francisco on Thanksgiving Day – among many volunteers – serving food to homeless people, who lined up around several blocks to receive a hot meal. Again, I experienced the same as the shelter – thankful, kind humans who needed food.
As a professor today, I give this assignment to my community college students – to attend an event or visit a place they’ve never experienced before (quite possibly because of predetermined or biased stereotypes), write about what they think it might be like, then ultimately write about what was ultimately experienced.
Students turn in their assignments with a newfound appreciation for the experience, a change of heart and a negative stereotype replaced with a positive and accurate conclusion.
In addition, I have my mass media of communication students watch “Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie: The danger of a single story” on YouTube: https://youtu.be/D9Ihs241zeg.
This might be too utopian of me to think it would be great to live in a world where instead of everyone automatically stereotyping people, places and things (even all creatures great and small), they would go out and experience firsthand, embrace and ultimately celebrate various people, places and things.
Charleen Earley is a freelance writer, community college journalism professor and Editor-in-
Chief of The Orinda News. She’s also a part-time stand-up comedienne and “Grammy” to three
Charleen Earley can be reached at email@example.com .