*stereotypes break down when individuals talk*
My name is Grace Kim.
It’s a beautiful evening, and the world’s finally cooling down after a typically hot February day. Irene, my sister, and I are leaving Thuthuka’s apartment block after having picked him up from the airport. Irene’s driving. She edges slowly out of the driveway, watching the traffic in the busy main road. I hear a group of students chatting loudly towards us, and turn my head to watch them while Irene concentrates on the road. Most of them stop at the edge of the driveway, waiting for us to go ahead. One guy doesn’t. Just as he’s about to walk in front of the car, his girlfriend anxiously yanks his arm: “Babe, she didn’t see you”. “No, ‘cause she wasn’t looking. Fucking Chinese”, he retorts loudly, pulling away from her.
I am a stereotype.
My sister and I are too stunned to say anything. We drive home in silence. Inside, a brood of ugly emotions start rearing their heads. I am pissed off. Angry. Mad. Furious. Fuming. Sad. Disheartened. Discouraged. Hurt.
To be honest, a comment like this shouldn’t affect me as much as it did. A South Korean national, I have lived in South Africa since I was two, and have long considered South Africa home. However, my physical appearance is a visible signal of difference, with the result that I am often on the receiving end of well-meant questions implying that here is where I do not belong, or less benevolent “Chinese” comments shouted by puerile teenagers. As a racial minority in South Africa, I’ve often been subject to minor forms of prejudice and racial stereotyping by people who perceive me as an ‘outsider’, but the sheer bias and venom expressed in this new incident broke me in a way none of the other ones had.
The thought that never left me was the most lasting one: Why. The. Hell. Had. I. Not. Said. Anything.
Unintentionally, my silence at this guy’s words is an illustration of the silencing power of stereotypes. Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s useful insight about the problem of stereotypes is “not that they are untrue, but that they are incomplete. They make one story become the only story”. Imbedded in this notion of the ‘only story’ is the relationship-shaping factor of power. Human beings rarely tell one story about themselves – they are far too complex for that. An ‘only story’ is told and retold about people by other people. Adichie adds that “power is the ability not just to tell the story of another person, but to make it the definitive story of that person”. And stereotypes are that powerful. They can, and do, define, categorize, and shape one person’s relationship with another.
Ironically, it is precisely for their definitive ability that stereotypes are so often used. Stereotypes are handy tools because they help us categorize reality into segments our brains can utilize in making sense of the complex world we live in. As Chinua Achebe points out: “The whole idea of a stereotype is to simplify. Instead of going through the problem of all this great diversity – that it’s this or maybe that – you have just one large statement; It is this”. It is, after all, easier to remember the 5 jocks, 2 engineers, and 3 artists that were at the party, rather than each of the 10 different individuals. The danger is when these stereotypes come to be the only things that represent another individual, as is often the case when we allow ourselves to be content that our ideas about someone actually constitute that person.
Although it’s not pleasant being so often and so easily stereotyped, the experiences that I have undergone have made an indelible impact on me. I remember telling a good friend about this incident, and his response was that I shouldn’t take it personally. He meant it kindly, making a point that if it hadn’t been a f***ing Chinese who was driving at that point, it could’ve been a f***ing blonde, or an f***ing ou man. Let me say from the outset that I agree that there is a danger in taking like this so personally that we walk around with huge chips on our shoulders about ourselves and others. Yet, there is a measure to which we must take situations like this personally – and I must, and I will in this case. One of the conditions of being human is such: only when I am personally affected, will I be moved enough to take action.
The morning after, I woke up with a heavy heart, but one that was also determined. The night before, I’d been toying with the idea of leaving the country permanently when I go to England at the end of this year. The night before, I’d been at the point of becoming bitter about all the wonderful people I’ve met here and about the life-changing, mind-shaping opportunities I’ve had. The morning after, however, I woke up and realized that the intensity of my anger and sadness was a measure of my deep love for South Africa. Moreover, I was convicted that I could do more to initiate, encourage, and foster conversation and dialogue between all people. Change can be brought about – but it must start with me.
How then do I suggest we fight against the silencing power of stereotypes? I draw the answer from my own life, for, curiously enough, my experiences have engendered in me a compassion for the marginalized and stereotyped instead of bitterness about those who see life in black, white and yellow.
I believe this attitude arises in part from my experience as an immigrant. I was brought up in a culture unfamiliar to my parents in a nation of which I am not (yet) a national, and as a racial minority in a multiracial country. This unique position has enriched my life immeasurably. In observing and participating within two different cultural mindsets, I have come to see a common humanity in all people. Furthermore, I came to realize that the views held by my parents and their South Korean friends quite often contrasted with those espoused by my South African friends and their families. To be aware that such varying opinions can be held by groups of people I regard highly has instilled in me the conviction that everyone’s perspective is of value.
Another reason for my attitude is because of a willingness to listen to other people’s stories. Stories are important because people understand the world and themselves through the narratives they tell. As someone who’s been trained in the humanities, and has an English Literature background, I have a natural interest in the ways that people perceive the world. As someone who is thought to be neutral, I have heard stories from my black friends about what white people do, from my white friends about what black people do, and from my coloured friends about what white and black people do. Sometimes the stories are humorous, as I am privy to the various misunderstandings on either side that have led to a specific situation; sometimes the stories are just heartbreaking. It has been my experience that people want to talk – they just don’t know how or when or with whom to begin.
I am not saying that everyone needs to be an immigrant in order to understand other peoples’ perspectives. I also do not wish to give the impression that I myself do not fail miserably at times – this is in no way an attempt to exonerate myself from my own tendencies to fall into blatant stereotyping and prejudices. This post is rather a call to action, a plea. I am advocating that we step into others’ experiences, and that we can only do if we talk to each other – if we open ourselves up to understanding two, three, four, five sides of a story. South Africa has a wealth of individuals, races, cultures, stories waiting to be heard and listened to, questions seeking answers, answers seeking questions. Athol Fugard once wrote: “One of the greatest blessings to fall in the lap of any storyteller is to be born in South Africa. You trip over stories when you step out of your front door, they walk past you as you stand on the street corner. Just keep your eyes, your ears and your soul open”. Let us keep our eyes, ears and souls open, and encourage these discussions. Let us share our lives, hurts, emotions, experiences, because stereotypes break down when individuals talk.
I have written this post as a start. I have written this post as a step to eventually breaking free from the silences that are draped over me, and others, when people enforce their stereotypes thoughtlessly, carelessly, hurtfully. Thank you for reading this, and taking time to consider my perspective. In doing so, you have temporarily joined in my battle. I ask you to play a bigger role, however, because change may start with me, but to carry on this change, to make a real difference, other people, you, must join my struggles.
I leave one last thought to you: if stereotypes break down when individuals talk, who are you speaking to?
My name is Grace Kim, and I am a stereotype. And I will remain a stereotype, until you open your ears and your heart to me.
Note: All quotes from Adichie come from her July 2009 presentation at the TED Conference, where she gave a talk entitled ‘The Danger of a Single Story’. Watch the video recording here: http://www.ted.com/talks/chimamanda_adichie_the_danger_of_a_single_story.html
After sharing this incident with a few friends, a friend currently teaching English in Korea emailed me: “What frustrates me is that in Korea I can’t get a job because they prefer hiring people with an American accent”. Prejudice and bias exists everywhere.