Defying Stereotypes

April 29, 2018

Tags: sterotypes, prejudice, ethno-centrism, world peace, inter-personal conflict, war

The closer we live to the center attached only to what is familiar--family, neighborhood, religion, nation-- the more narrow our lives. The "other" becomes a threat.
"What is familiar tends to become a value."

-- Gordon W. Allport in “The Nature of Prejudice”


Professor Allport’s theory of concentric circles captivated me during my first year of college. It was more than a shallow impression; it became deep and lasting. Puddles rippling outward amplify tolerance. The smaller the circle, the closer to the center we live, the more prejudiced we act and feel.

I have carried Allport’s theory of prejudice with me all my adult life and thought of it often in various circumstances. It is probably one of the reasons I became an ever-curious reporter. I made a decision to broaden my experiences beyond my narrow upbringing, to live abroad, and to remain compassionate and open to everyone’s stories.

Reading Allport’s now-classic study, I was, at first, searching for an understanding of the genocide that killed my family. I never fully turned his theory on myself and my own prejudices and values.

But sometimes I am tested at unexpected moments, which is what happened last week when I went to get a new watch strap for my NYU 20-year watch. I’m living in a university town in upstate NY, a blue “liberal” enclave in the midst of a red county. My circle of reference has shifted; I can no longer assume cosmopolitan ideas, values and politics close to my own. In search of a watch strap, I found the rest of America.

A friendly woman at the family-owned drug store referred me to a jewelry shop down the road. I was greeted by a sweet spaniel puppy and a smooth-skinned man with a limp. We chatted, I said I’d just moved to town, he said he’d recently moved out of town because he didn’t like what was happening here. I didn’t press him further about what exactly was happening because his bitterness was obvious and I am excited about our recent move out of the city.

He didn’t have the strap, it wasn’t in stock, so I placed an order and left.

The return visit took longer, a woman was in front of me, so I had to wait. I began to look around. Rifleman magazines were on the table and there were several newspaper clippings on the wall, some framed under glass, some pinned. Crimes and executions. I remembered that the smooth-skinned man with a limp had moved “deep into the woods,” and my imagination clicked over: he’s militia, or worse. He doesn’t like New York intellectuals or government officials, maybe he doesn’t like Jews, either, certainly he doesn’t like anyone of color, or Native Americans. If he’d lived in the post-Civil War South, he might have been involved in lynchings. I took these truths I had created to be self-evident.

I tried to slow down and figure out what was scaring me apart from the very thought of guns. Surely there was one behind the counter. This was a jewelry shop! But scariest of all was the vision of myself—the liberal, progressive cosmopolitan me dressed in a suit and carrying a briefcase—through this man’s eyes. What was he seeing? What were his thoughts? I had to ask.

“Were you in the armed forces?”

“No, sadly. I tried to sign up during Vietnam, went up to Albany with a buddy, but I have high-frequency hearing loss. My buddy got in and came home in a box. I became a cop.”

“That’s a sad story about your friend, but you served in your own way. My husband was in the Seventh Fleet. He didn’t see any action.”

Pause. A smile surfacing, mine and his.

Whereupon we sequed into complaints about the Veteran’s Administration, Agent Orange, injured veterans of the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, and what we owe the men and women who serve.

Oh frabjous day, we were in complete agreement, we’d found another touching point. Still, I wasn’t satisfied. NRA member, he must be a completely bad man, right? Wrong.

When I got home, I googled my friendly neighborhood jeweler and found out that he’d recently engraved ID bands for local Alzheimer’s patients and been honored by the community for his donation and service.



Comments

  1. May 6, 2018 1:52 PM EDT
    As you continue to settle into the relative peace, quiet and beauty of the countryside in which you have recently moved, your writing will benefit. It already shows a certain clarity, simplicity and lyricism that I have not seen before. You are embarking upon a very interesting chapter of your life, and all best wishes for your happiness there.
    - Cameron
  2. May 6, 2018 3:19 PM EDT
    With thanks, Cameron. It is true that writers require peace for sentences to surface and deepen.
    - Carol Bergman

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