Ten years ago and just prior to a friend's wedding, a fellow bridesmaid who I had just met for the first time walked up to me and said, "This is going to be so much fun. We can talk about boys. Go shopping. Gossip!"
When comedians, actors, athletes, radio personalities, and politician like Michael Richards, Mel Gibson, John Rocker, Don Imus, and George Allen respectively communicated stereotypes through epithets like "Nappy headed hoes" and "Makaka," the response is often severe. The stereotyper is viewed as racist and risks loss of fan base, sponsorships, and even employment. So, with this frame of reference I was astonished by the stereotypes spewed by my fellow bridesmaid. And so I felt justified in responding abruptly, "We'll get along a lot better if you don't use stereotypes in every sentence." She stared at me blankly, apologized, and continued speaking ... without any stereotypes.
Stereotypes have troubled me since I was a child when I experienced firsthand some of the consequences of stereotyping. I remember vividly traveling on a New York City subway with my family when a man cursed at my stepmother for her mixed marriage and "mulatto" children. She and my father appeared unaffected and all of us ignored him. Inside, I was hurt and confused, but most of all, I felt bad for my stepmother. I didn't understand why this stranger would want to humiliate her.
So when I heard the bridesmaid's string of stereotypes, I couldn't help but to respond as I did. At the time, I thought I was helping the situation. Bridal party activities often drag out for months and it was clear to me that we would have a better chance of getting along in the future if she learned early in our relationship that stereotyping wouldn't work for me.
In retrospect, I am embarrassed at how rude I was. I knew she wasn't trying to be sexist; she was trying to be nice and make us both feel better in an uncomfortable situation. The way I responded to her friendly gesture was to stand on this moral high ground of political correctness but the stereotypes hadn't harmed anyone.
Looking back, I think about how else I could have responded. If I said, "that sounds like fun," we would have both felt more comfortable at the cost of promoting stereotypes of women. If I had played dumb and said, "why would we gossip?" I would have sounded like I had been living under a rock. And if said, "I like going to a park more than shopping," I would have seemed idiosyncratic and still would not have exposed the stereotype. For each response there would have been consequences. I chose to strike a blow against stereotypes but was also self-righteous and hurtful, although unintentionally so.
I used to see myself as an avenger of stereotypes, someone who would single-handedly eliminate stereotypes along with the prejudice and discrimination they cause. My goal was to decry every statement that smacked of racism or similar "ism." Although stereotypes still bother me as much as they did ten years ago, the response I use in similar situations has developed. I decide how to respond based on the personalities of those in the conversation, our relationship to each other, my mood, past experience, time constraints, and numerous other intricacies inherent to any conversation.
Today, in part because of this conversation my fellow bridesmaid, I now hold a doctorate in Communication and I have dedicated my professional life to the study of stereotypes. Friends, family, fellow teachers, and even strangers who find out what I do for a living ask me how they should respond to these types of conversations that I experienced and that are all too frequent. I tell them that there is no one right or wrong way to respond when someone communicates a stereotype but they should know that for any response they choose, there are consequences.
Professor Anastacia Kurylo teaches communication arts and studies stereotypes at Marymount Manhattan College in New York. She is the editor of the intercultural communication textbook in press titled Inter/ Cultural Communication: Representation and Construction of Culture.