Breaking down racial prejudice, preconceptions
I have a story for you this week that illustrates what I consider inappropriate social conduct, but that more importantly describes a malignant social disease — prejudice. I do not know how to isolate its cause or how to kill it. But I do have a suggestion for how to keep it from spreading and how to fight back.
I was at a dance party a few months ago with my friend and her boyfriend. While walking back to her house at the end of the night, her boyfriend brought up that he’d seen me kiss this guy. I’m paraphrasing because I won’t repeat his exact words, but he told me he thought it was strange that I had “such a thing for black guys.”
“Excuse me?” was my first reaction. “Who the hell do you think you are?” was the next one. I was floored.
But what I actually said was, “I’m not exactly sure what you mean by that.” He explained that whenever we’d been at parties together he had seen me dancing with guys who happened to be black, and it was weird to him. Where he went to high school, he told me, girls like me just didn’t date black boys.
So much was going on in my head at this point that I was at a loss for what to say. For you to better understand his position, I’ll give you a quick sketch of myself: I have white skin and blond hair. If anyone were to stereotype me based solely on my appearance alone, they would probably label me “WASP-y.” I grew up in a preppy town where typical high school apparel was J. Crew cardigans, Polo shirts and corduroys. My friend’s boyfriend who presumed to comment on my dating life grew up in a city that was very economically, ethnically and racially divided. He is Hispanic, if that matters, though I’m not sure why it would. As already stated, the person I had kissed was black. Not that the boyfriend knew this about my dancing partner, but he went to high school in a town nearly as preppy as mine and may own more Polo shirts than I do.
Some of you reading the above might be asking, why is it relevant where you or he or this other guy grew up? I mention where my friend’s boyfriend comes from because I think he used his background to read what he saw at the party. He looked at me and at the guy I was dancing with, and based on our appearances, he pictured us in the context of his high school experience. The image made no sense to him. I gather my appearance is what he meant by girls “like” me, and I think his idea of my preppy hometown may have played into his perception of who I am. He defined me based on the assumptions he had made about my life and cultural identity. He interpreted my personality based on my looks.
For me, though, no idea could be more foreign. Where I grew up, race was not an issue that explosively divided my community. I am not saying there were no debates about race and social equality in Princeton, and I will not presume to know or understand the extent to which different people in my hometown feel as though “race” was an issue. However speaking from my own perspective, I can honestly say I never thought about race as a barrier between people.
I was at a loss for how to proceed in this conversation. I was offended, for a lot of reasons. First, I could not believe this person had felt he had any right to comment on what kind of man “I had a thing for.” Who I am attracted to is none of his business. Second, he clearly did not know me well at all, because his conclusion was incorrect. I have dated men of different skin tones and with different other physical attributes someone might find relevant in defining my “type.” To draw conclusions about my dating life from observing who I danced with at a few parties was an incomplete survey of me. A more accurate description of who I have “a thing for” would be nice, cute guys who are talented and passionate about what they do — and who are also hopefully good dancers.
More than anything, though, I was shocked that he treated our skin tones as relevant at all. I know there is a real physical difference between “white” skin and “black” skin, just the same way that there is a difference between people in height and eye color, and in whether one’s earlobes are connected to the side of one’s head. It’s all in our genes. I also know that my friend’s boyfriend is a smart guy who is certainly aware of that. What he meant by “black” and “white” was an association that in reality had nothing to do with physical appearances. It was a whole conception of social division between races that his time in high school had ingrained in him, for whatever reasons. I will not pretend to understand what life experiences he encountered that made that division so real to him. However what shocked and angered me was not so much that he grew up in a community where social segregation was very real — though I do think it’s sad that such places exist in New Jersey.
What upset me was that he did not realize that this community, our University community, is not like his hometown. It isn’t like mine either. It is its own unique environment where we have the opportunity to make our own social rules. By bringing in his attitudes toward race and dating and whatever else to bear on my dating life, he tried to fit me into the cultural environment of his upbringing. I refuse to accept its right to define my actions. I understand that where he is from, me kissing this guy would have been a transgression. Where I am from it would not be. At the University, it only is if we as a community decide to treat it as such. It hadn’t even occurred to me that anyone would.
I believe what matters is not what culture shapes your childhood and what community attitudes you grow up surrounded by, but what you choose to take from that background and how you decide to let those experiences influence your life. So I am asking both you and myself to think about the prejudices we each hold and where they come from. The University is a bubble where we get the chance to shape our community as we see fit. Let’s try to treat each other as equals and peers. I challenge you to strip away your preconceptions of other people and instead, judge them based on who they prove themselves to be.
Courtney Shaw is a School of Arts and Sciences senior majoring in English and history with a minor in French. Her column, “Miss Conduct,” normally runs on alternate Thursdays.