" Of Bikers, Blondes and More..."
Few years ago, when my daughter was in preschool and my son was a few months old, I was making my usual morning drive to drop my little girl to school with her baby brother tucked away in his car seat. It was one of those mornings when we had overslept, so it was a mad scramble trying to get her dressed, pack her lunch and then take off with the baby and her. I did make it to her school on time but Arjun dirtied his diaper big time on the way. On reaching the school I realized that I did not have his diaper bag and therefore I did not have wipes or a diaper.
Well, I just borrowed some wet napkins from Mansi’s school and cleaned up the baby. His shorts were messy too and I did not have an extra pair of shorts either so Arjun was only in his t-shirt! Well, I will soon be home, I thought, and just then my eyes went to the gas meter and I realized that the low gas light has been on for a while and I will not be able to reach home, I will have to stop at a gas station and fill up. I should have remembered to tell my husband to do this for me the evening before, I thought, feeling a little flustered as I am not good with machines. When I first came to America even the vending machine had me confused, as to where to put the money in and how to make the selection and where the goodies will come out. ATM machines bewildered me too. Since then, I have learnt to use both those machines well which in retrospect hasn’t helped me much as I eat too much candy from the machine and when you take out too much cash you spend it very quickly too !
Anyway, coming back to the story I managed to park the van correctly so the gas tank was well aligned. However, I inserted my credit card the wrong way or God knows what I did, it got stuck in there. I thought, “Oh my God, what have I done, why do I get so nervous, if only I had kept my calm I would have swiped the credit card correctly! Now what, I cannot go inside and ask the cashier to help me as Arjun is only in his t-shirt and I cannot leave the baby in the van! Oh, how I admire and envy people who have it together, who are organized and who are on top of their game. I wish I could be like them. Why do I always land in a mess?” Surprisingly, there were no other people over there and the whole place was empty. “Where is everybody,” I thought while I saw a couple of bikers park their motor-bikes close to the convenience store at the gas station. They were big and brawny with rippling muscles adorned with scary looking tattoos which were well displayed by their sleeveless t-shirts. They were wearing bandanas and looked like different versions of Hulk Hogan but had a meaner look on their faces like they were so angry at the whole world. They both were looking at me and talking to each other.
Just the day before, I had seen bits and pieces of the movie Mad Max and images from the movie came flashing back to me. I had seen the part where Mel Gibson’s wife whose name was Jesse is followed by a rival biker gang. Her van breaks down and she starts running on foot with her baby but there is no escape. The evil gang follows them, taunts them and then runs them down with their motorcycles and they are killed; Mel Gibson arrives too late to intervene. I also got a nightmare when I slept that night after watching the movie as it was a truly horrible and tragic death the mom and baby endured.
Coming back to the present, I saw one of the bikers striding down purposefully towards me with a blank look on his face, no attempt to make eye contact or to say hello. The other biker went inside the convenience store. I got very nervous, I knew logically that movies are different from real life and that he cannot hurt me in broad daylight but still my heartbeat increased and I was shaking a little bit. I was a little scared. “I should have eaten breakfast,” I thought, “I feel so nauseated”. He came right up to me and said “Is there a problem”, “Er Er problem yes, yes, my credit card got stuck” I mumbled. Without saying a word he managed to take the credit card out, swiped it for me, lifted the nozzle, asked me if I needed to fill the whole tank and when I said yes he filled gas and shut the valve for me. I was so relieved, and so grateful. What a nice man, I thought. I wanted to give him a big hug and thank him but did not have the nerve to do so. “You have beautiful eyes, they dart around like a deer you know”, he said unexpectedly and I gave him a big smile and sighed with relief. He turned and walked back towards the convenience store. “Thank you so much” I shouted out to his back and he turned and nodded his head. Later, I came to know that the movie Mad Max is set in a future dystopian world and does not mirror the current reality so I had no reason to be worried in the first place.
Stereotypes are a part of our reality. We form impressions and judgements about people even before we have talked to them. It is easy for our brains to compartmentalize the different groups of people with different behaviors. Stereotyping is a ubiquitous, pervasive phenomenon. There are good stereotypes and bad stereotypes. Indians in America are assumed to be very intelligent and good with math and computers. Years ago, as a graduate student assistant at the computer lab I saw that everybody came to me with their problems but not many went to the African American co-worker of mine who was also assisting at the same lab. When I asked her about it she said that many people think that African Americans are not that brainy and that bothered me as I knew she was much smarter than me. That is the reason why when Grey’s Anatomy and Scandal came on TV and showed African Americans as successful lawyers and doctors it made me very happy. A Caucasian American friend said he dated an Indian girl thinking she will be docile, homely, a good cook and subservient and was surprised to know that she was independent, opinionated and did not like to cook! I am reminded of what my mom used to say, “Do not judge a book by its cover.” Appearances certainly are deceptive.
Blondes are stereotyped as ditzy, scatterbrained and vacuous. They really did get a raw deal in the whole stereotypical chain of behaviors. Have you ever heard a blonde joke? They are funny but very offensive. Some examples :
Q: Why did the blonde buy a brown cow?
A: To get chocolate milk.
Q: There are 17 blonds standing outside a disco but why couldn't they get in?
A: The sign said "must be 18 to enter".
Q: Why can't a blonde dial 911?
A: She can't find the eleven.
I wanted to investigate the origin of this stereotyping and I quote Wikipedia, “the roots of this notion may be traced to Europe, with the "dumb blonde" in question being a French courtesan named Rosalie Duthe, satirised in a 1775 play Les curiosites de la Foire for her habit of pausing a long time before speaking, appearing not only stupid but literally dumb (in the sense of mute.)” To annihilate another misconception, people who think a lot before they speak or those who pause before they construct and utter a sentence could be extremely brilliant, they just might be shy and nervous about public speaking.
There are so many stereotypes out there, Mexicans are considered lazy, Asians are bad drivers, Jews are thrifty, African Americans are not punctual and the list goes on. Inherently, we know that we should not let bias modify our conclusions and yet every time there is a break in or a robbery the police are looking for a group of African American teenagers wearing hoodies when it could very well be a group of Caucasians who committed the crime. When I was a little girl I really thought that the Sardar jees (men from the Sikh community who keep long hair and wear turbans) turned crazy at twelve o’ clock and now I realize how foolish I was to believe that.
Assumptions are not reality. We have to challenge the existing notions about a certain group of people and their associated behaviors. Laughing at blonde jokes and redneck jokes and Santa and Banta Singh jokes is fine as god knows we need a little bit of humor in our lives but we should not let these stereotypes infuse us with prejudice. The smart thing to do is to explore, examine and evaluate each person you meet as an exclusive and unique individual who is independent from his or her group. I know that is a hard thing to do but it is definitely worth a try!