April 24, 2015
Why do stereotypes arise? Bigotry, xenophobia and ignorance are all common sources for stereotypes, but sometimes there is a more immediate impulse for them, such as when I received my first-year housing information in the summer of 2013. While I was happy that I had a centrally located double with a private bathroom, my eyes jumped to the bit that talked about my future roommate’s country of origin: Pakistan. Besides a few other scarce details, that was all I had on the guy.
My mind suddenly started imagining my future life, and having to get used to my roomie waking up at the crack of dawn for prayer. Would he be okay with alcohol? Does he even smoke cigarettes? When he ended up being a charming Marxist with whom I share more traits than with most people on the Hill, I was struck by the almost natural way my mind jumped to stereotypes to fill in the blanks. Perhaps it was some manifestation of first-year anxiety, but stereotypes sometimes have much more innocuous sources than pure racism.
Such has been the nature of most of the stereotyping that I have encountered on Hamilton’s campus. When I tell people that I am Mexican, they are sometimes surprised, usually noting my light skin tone and my accent. Most of these comments are positively phrased, such as, “Your English is very good,” but they still exemplify the micro-stereotypes that seem to unconsciously seep through conversation in everyday life. It is almost expected that expatriates would experience more stereotyping, not only because they are living outside their native culture, but also because they are more cognizant to the phenomenon.
Similar to stereotypes are assumptions. In the Venn diagram of misconceptions, stereotypes could even be placed inside the bigger group of assumptions, and this has been a striking feature of my stay at Hamilton. I think most noticeable of all has been seeing how the assumption of superiority differs between the U.S. and Mexico. While a Mexican could claim to have the best cuisine in the world, an American can clearly boast they have the biggest economy and military in the world. Both nationalism and patriotism take on a very definite tone in the U.S., and there seems to be an underlying assumption that the American way is always the best way, even when it is not necessarily the case.
Another aspect that has struck me is the number of Hamiltonians whom I know who do not have a passport. While I can understand that there are economic limitations to travel, I believe that there is more at play than just dollars and pennies. Why would you travel farther to an island resort with different currency and language when Hawaii is right there? Why bother with the Alps when Colorado legalized weed? There is a historical precedent for American isolationism, but the insularity of Americans has been particularly interesting to me, as it seems to be based more on practicality rather than apathy. Using cheese as a suitable metaphor, it is more about grabbing the safe bet that are Kraft Singles™, rather than experimenting between ripe Stilton or a ball of casu marzu.
There are a multitude of cultural groups on campus, from the International Student Association to the Scandinavian Club, which help to grow the cultural viewfinder of the Hamilton community. These clubs serve not only to expand our horizons, but also to serve as the starting point for self-criticism, as attendees can be exposed to methods and practices, which may prove preferable. More than anything, these organizations heighten the sense of respect for other cultures and promote tolerance between them. However, the moment you leave the event and you go back to your room, you are thrown back into reality, and whatever information and values you were fed soon fade.
Perhaps it is not then enough to simply go to a meeting. If I were the King of Hamilton, I would make study-abroad (not to NYC or Washington) required for graduation. Being at Hamilton, I have experienced a different culture that I had only really seen through the distorted lens of American television. But now that I have two years of first-hand experience, I can clearly see what America does better, and where it falters.
For example, I can confidently tell you American bureaucracy is one of the most efficient I’ve encountered, with most services available online and with a minimal amount of queuing. However, street food in the U.S. is reduced to Burger King and I’ve yet to encounter a non-ethnic American restaurant (that is, no Thai/Italian/etc.) that serves digestible food. I can also wax lyrical about how easy it is to make friends in Mexico, and the generally more communal culture that dominates at parties and get-togethers, whereas there is something in our genes that makes saying “no” a very tough thing indeed.
But for what it’s worth, it is completely meaningless for me to share such comparisons with you, because until you have spent some time in Mexico, you will readily forget this information as easily as you forgot all those facts you heard at the LiNK (Liberty in North Korea) meeting. It isn’t that we don’t care, it’s just that we cannot become soaked in a culture without living it. Stereotypes will always be here, but if you set your mind to getting the greatest amount of stamps on your passport, perhaps they will be better-informed stereotypes, and the need for them will decrease as our love for other cultures matures.