Why Stereotypes, In Moderation, May Be Good

I take the boys with me to go vote at Chavis Community Center, in the heart of Southeast Raleigh. We get to the volunteer and she asks for my name ‘Shannon P Bennett’ i say. ‘What’s the middle name dear?’ she asks. I state it. My 5 year-old who thinks he is Bernie Mac reincarnated says ‘P as in Palin’ loud enough for everyone to hear. I begin to turn red. ‘No it’s not, it’s Palmer’ I say pushing him behind me; but the little critter scoots around and gets right in the lady’s face ‘It’s Palin and she’s from Alaska!’ I thump him in the head and by now EVERYONE is staring at me. I get the paper, sign my name and try to rush off when this little booger shouts out, fist raised and in the air ‘Go McCain’! If you could have seen the faces of the voters….OMG….if looks could kill! How do you explain to a room full of people who have just left the Obama rally that not only are you an Obama supporter but that your beautiful baby boy is a comedian?!

I posted the above story as a note on my Facebook page on October 30, 2008. It is a true account of my voting experience and as real a depiction of my son’s comedic abilities as one could make. In telling the story, I made an assumption on that day that my biological family in Wasilla, Alaska were all Palin supporters based on my stereotypes of them (my bios, the Palins and Wasilla); a stereotype my bio-mom was happy to dispel.

Why would you think that! I’m for Obama! There aren’t many of us up here but I’m definitely one of them!

Since that conversation and in getting to know my Alaska relatives, I’ve been very conscious of my assumptions. I try to be very open-minded and look at the world through a wide lens as opposed to a narrow one, after all, my entire life is one big stereotype. Of course experiences birth preconceptions that are often impenetrable, add to that the horror stories of others, insatiable media coverage and an overactive imagination and well…

I rarely leave my home after dark but when your son has a fever and you’re out of the ibuprofen-acetaminophen rotating cocktails-duty calls.Leaving in the middle of an episode of Dateline where a home invasion threatened the lives of a mother and her two sons didn’t exactly aid my fears; and if that weren’t enough, I had just read an article about a student at Morgan State University who dined on the internal organs of the roommate he murdered. Needless to say, I was on edge.

As I was pulling into the Wal-Mart shopping center, a woman carrying several bags slipped and introduced her rear end to the pavement in a slow motion crash. It was nothing to laugh at as she staggered to a stand and then fell again. Finally she steadied herself and attempted to shake off the mud and humiliation of her fall(s). She succeeded at neither. I pulled over and helped her pick up the scattered groceries and noticing the blood soaking through the knees of her pants, I offered her a ride home.

As she buckled her seat belt the severity of my sincerity overshadowed my genuine concern as I visualized her grabbing the razors from her bag and slicing me to pieces. My mind began to race and my face flushed crimson. When she leaned over on the arm rest I froze as I imagined her stripping me of my clothing and gnawing at my flesh. I didn’t hear a word she said over the sound of my beating heart and heavy breathing. I feared this woman who walked to Wal-Mart at night in the rain for razors and cheese spread with the thick stench of cigarettes in her hair and coffee on her breath. Infinite scenes from movies about hitchhikers and images from news reports filled clouded my thoughts as I whispered a prayer and reprimanded myself in the same sentence.

When we arrived at her home nearly ninety seconds later, she thanked me three times before hopping out of my vehicle and freeing me from fears grip.

I still cannot believe this happened. I’m just so embarrassed and I wasn’t even drunk!

Well, when you tell this story maybe you should say you were.

Oh no! I can’t do that, I just got out of prison and this is a halfway house.

And with that she slammed the door and limped off.

Stereotypes, in moderation, aren’t always a bad thing…

“Check All That Apply”

The question and answer below are between Heidi Durrow, author of The Girl Who Fell From The Sky and NPR Interviewer, Michelle Norris for All Things Considered on March 2, 2010.

Norris: One last quick question for you. Are you okay with the term biracial, or is there something else that you would like to hear as a label or a description applied to you?

Durrow: I like biracial. I say I’m mixed. I say I’m half African American and half Danish. If I have to say that I’m just black or I’m just white, then I’m not telling the whole story of myself or my experience, and I’d really like to be whole in my conversations with others. The thing I like to say these days is, I’m a story. I think that would be the very best label of all, definitely.

Ever since setting a Google alert for ‘biracial’, I have read more than enough articles from people admonishing people of mixed race to claim one race to identify with. I have lost sleep over these articles in the last few weeks. I yell at the ignorance of the authors and question their ability to make claims for a group to which they do not belong. I can no more claim one heritage over the other than I can one son over his brother. I have started four or five posts debating the issue and arguing for my right to be both black and white. Today I realized, I do not have to fight for this right, it is already mine.

Some say that claiming both is a form of self hatred for one half, typically the black half. To this I say, self hatred is in claiming one color characteristic and denying the other. I spent many years as an ardent self-hater. Because I was not reared by my white mother or with any considerable representation of her race, I learned to despise it. We tend to despise what we fear, fear what we do not understand and misunderstand what we do not know. I did not understand what it meant to be white any more than I did what it meant to not be adopted. I feared being the enemy. I feared that one day everyone in my black world would hate me as much as they did my white ancestry.

I should probably use present tense in the previous sentence.

At an early age, I learned to dismiss with a wave or a shrug whenever a black person in my presence made a derogatory comment against a white person. And it was okay because I didn’t consider myself white, just light, as I was often reminded. For many years I claimed one or another Spanish-speaking lineage based on resemblance not existence. Today I cringe at the sound of someone black disrespecting my white self with an assumption of oppression like “you know they won’t give a black man that job” or “they only treated her like that cause she’s black”. However, I do not dismiss their experience based beliefs.

I can’t recall being in the presence of a white person and hearing such a statement reversed but then again, that could be because they identify me as black too. Oh and the worse is when someone of either race says someone is acting a certain color! Now I’m all about embracing some stereotypes because it’s so much easier than becoming enraged over them and many of them are rooted in a tad bit of truth. Black people love fried chicken, as evident by the Popeyes, Bojangles, KFC, and Church’s all on New Bern Avenue in Southeast Raleigh. White guys love the uniform (= khaki pants + blue oxford shirt and on occasion a navy blue blazer). On one day during my hour lunch, while sitting outside the Wake County courthouse, I counted seventeen uniforms!

Not a day goes by without the proverbial “What you mixed with?” A few days ago a student asked if I was a mulatto. A few weeks ago, I overheard two students heatedly arguing my Latina heritage. I recall being labeled Portugese, Puerto Rican, Dominican, Italian, Native American, Mediterranean and even Turkish. I have been described as light-skinned(ed), red-bone(d), high yellow, light bright, lite-brite-damn-near-white, oreo, zebra cake, white chocolate, mocha latte, and my personal favorite-crigga.

 I have been defined as black and labeled as white but I am neither and yet I am both.

I am biracial.

The Mechanism Behind Fetishism

Fetishes come in various forms. There is the lawyer who has a fetish for success and infinite possibilities achieved. There is the mom who has a fetish for discipline because of her desire to rear responsible and well-mannered children. There is the fashionista who has a fetish for healthy living through exercise and diet. There is the graduate student who has a fetish for finding romance at the turn of every corner. Each of these represents a longing within them that demands complete devotion to their fixation and each fixation has a spell of sorts on their desires. The lawyer may be driven by a fear of failure. The mom may be driven by the fear of her own mistakes. The fashionista may be driven by the fear of obesity. The student may be driven by the fear of loneliness. Behind each of these fetishes lies a fear through which our obsessions are manifested. I admire these four souls who have found drive to diminish the power of their fear and release its hold on them.

Twenty minutes into trying to figure out my own fetish, I decided to reverse the theory and look at my fears. The process worked. I fear not having a voice, being silenced, losing the ability to articulate my thoughts. My fetish is writing. I am continuously in composition from journal entries that reveal my deepest secrets to manuals for standard operations of procedures. It matters to me not what I have authored but that I simply have. It is through transcription that I reveal who I am and acknowledge that I am present and relative. You have encouraged this voice merely by reading this blog.

Typically, when we think of fetishes we picture sexual fetishism where sexual connotation is given to asexual entities. The most commonly recognized of these is the foot fetish. In walks Peter. Literally. I was sitting at my desk with my feet propped on the foot rest when he walked in without a word and removed my shoe before I could say “hold on” to whoever had me engaged in conversation. I ran him off and forbid him to return after a few coarse words. On another occasion, Peter returned to the scene of his initial violation; however this time he satisfied his pleasures via web images in the computer lab. And again, Peter returned, but to his enjoyment he was able to con the freshman coed to remove her shoe and achieve ultimate gratification.

Horror flashed across her face and then embarrassment as we laughed at her naivety in helping Peter show her where his ankle hurt. When I explained his fetish and that showing him her foot was equal to showing a typical teenage male her boobs, she was in disbelief. I imagine that she spent all evening on google trying to learn more about the concept that had not held space in her budding mind prior to this moment. I wondered when I first learned about such crazes and other more sinister perversions. Surely my inexperience decreased as my fears increased, until my own fetish captured my interests and seduced my hands with pen and paper.

I wonder what fear guided Peter to his fetish, or if an experience shaped his amusement. I will probably never know but in preparation, I am adopting a shoe fetish.

Up All Night

I awoke to find them in the same position I had left them hours ago, crouched over action figures, transferring attention between their wrestling matches and ESPN, rapping along with Drake. I informed them that the sun was coming up and instructed them to get in bed. Before I could turn off the light, they were snoring.

Deja vu teased me for days. I felt I had been there before but I couldn’t remember when. I visualized myself crouched over Barbie and Ken, the pink house, the pink van, the clothes. Ken slapped Barbie and my playmate in a male voice said “Where’s my food woman?” This memory plagued me for days, when had this happened or had it at all?

It hit me today. I was about 8. The shouting outside the bedroom door wouldn’t allow us to sleep. Stephanie and I played until the sun came up and her mother entered with red cheeks and dark eyes to prepare us for Sunday school. I wasn’t afraid. I had seen this scene many times before. I was sworn to secrecy and never told my mother of what happened on those nights I slept over Stephanie’s house.

As she covered her face in a concrete layer of makeup, she explained her red cheeks away. “You should always wear sunscreen so you don’t get sunburned like this.” I sat on the bathroom counter watching her in her beige bra and half slip. She was beautiful even after her beating.

We slept all through worship service that day, Stephanie and I. My mother asked as we drove home, “Have you ever seen Stephanie’s parents fight?” I said no. I hadn’t. She never fought back and when the yelling began, we retreated to the bedroom and Barbie and Ken, the pink house, the pink van, the clothes.

I was never permitted to stay with Stephanie again.

Expression Suppression

This post has the potential to go in a million different directions. I will try to stay focused.

Often I am told that you can read exactly what I’m thinking by looking at my face. I do not have a poker face. In meetings, during conversations, at lunch with a friend…whatever I think, I show. I’ve been asked to work on this debilitating condition. I practice. I look into the mirror and try very hard to think about the dumbest idea possible and not show any expression.

Like when the doctor asked a friend at an appointment to which I accompanied her, “When was your last menstrual cycle?” after she responded to the previous question “I don’t have a uterus.” Sometimes you can’t hide that you think the speaker is an imbecile or at least that their words are idiotic.

This is a work in progress.

Last night, I met someone who perfected the art of suppression of expression. Actually we didn’t officially meet, but when I turned to see her quietly standing to my right in full ghost garb, we connected. “You scared the crap out of me.” I yelled at her (I confess, I may not have actually said crap). Nothing. She offered no smile, no laugh, no “gotcha”. Nothing. With racing heart and bumpy arms I waited seconds (that felt like hours) for the light to change permitting us to cross the street and move away from the image of death. Others commented on her ghastly ensemble and to them she also gave no hint of life.

I had never been out on Halloween and actually, had I realized it was being celebrated on Saturday, I would have never accepted my girlfriends invitation to meet. I am extremely scary. I jump at everything. My nerves are nearly nonexistent. Horror movies and I have a wonderful understanding. I don’t bother them and they don’t bother me. There were several other frights that night like the rugby player in the leopard print Kim and Kourtney one shoulder asymmetrical number, the inebriated member of 27 dresses who like a weeble-wobble went dow and bounced right back up, grown people in Sesame Street caricature throwing back shots and the joker who resembled too much for my liking, Heath Ledger in the Dark Knight (voice and all). None impacted me like the figure in mesh who appeared to glide and glow.

I enjoyed my experience but my shock-sensitive self will probably not allow me to attend such an event in the future. I’m much more comfortable with the miniature Superman(s) and Cinderella(s) who want your candy, not your soul.

And having expression is not such a scary thing.