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Posts tagged ‘stereotypes’

Born to Discriminate?

My best friend and his wife had a baby girl last year. She’s a love, and I’m deeply honoured to be considered part of her family circle. Because we live in Canada, we all talk about “where we’re from” in terms of our ancestry; Baby Berryface (as I call her in the web world) is Portuguese on her father’s side and Italian on her mother’s. But her parents are teaching her to call me “Ciocia” – the Polish word for “aunt”. I’m her only ciocia.

Actually this is a baby with a diverse family of people who love her: two Filipino titas, a handful of zios and zias (Italian), a couple of tios and tias (Portuguese) – even a Portuguese padrinho (godfather). She’s also got a few straightforward English aunties and uncles, and a G-Momma who doesn’t think God would like being associated with her if the baby called her Godmother.

All this early-childhood diversity makes sense on a broad level: we are afraid of what’s unfamiliar to us. If you want to raise a kid who’s as unprejudiced as possible, exposing them to plenty of different types of people is a big help. Biologically, we’re wired to accept people who are like us. A recent look at the morality of babies tells us how deeply-rooted our prejudices can be:

There’s plenty of research showing that babies have within-group preferences: 3-month-olds prefer the faces of the race that is most familiar to them to those of other races; 11-month-olds prefer individuals who share their own taste in food and expect these individuals to be nicer than those with different tastes; 12-month-olds prefer to learn from someone who speaks their own language over someone who speaks a foreign language.

Two babies from different races.

Image via the National Geographic Channel's "Science of Babies" series.

But if you’re about to argue that nature is telling us not to mingle with the Other, forget it: I’m not buying. In the evolutionary past, it made sense to fear people who didn’t look like you, since they were probably your tribe or group’s competition for scarce resources. We’re past that today. And we’re living in a multicultural society, where a person who looks nothing like you is as likely to be your next-door neighbour, your project partner, or your kid’s teacher as your competitor. Put simply, everybody has to be able to get along and see past the surface differences that are no longer a reliable indicator of team-membership.

And we’re also wired to do that, incidentally. From the same article:

Studies with young children have found that once they are segregated into different groups — even under the most arbitrary of schemes, like wearing different colored T-shirts — they eagerly favor their own groups in their attitudes and their actions.

Put a black child and a white child together and place the emphasis on race, and they’ll see each other as . . . well, Other. But put them both in yellow shirts and emphasize shirt colour, and suddenly they become The Same. Race disappears in the face of team membership. Relationship takes priority.

What can we do to encourage more tolerant behaviour, less racialized judgment, and better co-operation between racialized groups? For one thing, quit racializing them. Take a close look at the paragraph above – for race to be what matters, we the adults have to place emphasis on it. Place emphasis on T-shirt colour and that’ll be what matters instead. I’m in favour of teaching children about their ancestral heritage – and at the same time exposing them to other people’s racial heritage too, and making it every bit as interesting as your own. Let kids be aware of the differences we all have, because that builds familiarity and tolerance and comfort. That’s the underpinning of Baby Berryface’s multicultural extended family – everybody around her is different, but they’re not foreign to her because she knows them well.

But don’t make racial and cultural difference your overt agenda: difference isn’t what matters. What matters is how we’re all on the same team, searching for the same things – wearing the same T-shirts, if you will. Who was it who said, “We may have come over on different ships, but we’re all in the same boat now”?

Little girl with books.

Image via Rolling Prairie Library System.

Here are some ways you can take advantage of your local library to encourage cross-cultural understanding in your kids at any age – it’s never too early or too late.

  • First, the obvious. Find books about children from various cultures or racial groups. Their race doesn’t have to be the focus of the story; in fact, it’s best if it’s not something the story revolves around, but  just an ancillary fact. But any story about a different culture, race, or religion can build an understanding of different sorts of people.
  • Check yourself. What are your attitudes about different cultures? If you’ve got nasty beliefs about another culture or race, your attitudes are likely to transfer down to your children. Maybe it wouldn’t be such a bad idea to educate yourself about the virtues of a culture you find unsettlingly unfamiliar.
  • Meet your librarian. Librarians are generally very friendly people. Interact with us. We like it. Most of us are pretty racially open-minded too. (Well, at least my generation – I’m not really experienced enough with the previous generation of librarians to make any sort of pronouncement on their racial tolerance.) If you don’t have any opportunities to introduce your children to real-world people who look different from them, a librarian can be a good (and very understanding) starting place. We can also help you find good books about . . . well, anything, come to think of it.
  • Join in! Libraries have loads of children’s programming, from storytimes to crafting sessions to summer reading clubs. Even if the content has nothing to do with race, religion, or culture, joining in with other children who may not look or live like your own can boost tolerance and make the unfamiliar more familiar.
  • Embrace community. Check out your community events listings at the library. Often libraries will get involved in events that celebrate different cultures. My childhood community center often hosted a pavilion in Carabram to introduce the food, dance, dress, and customs of another culture. Often they’ll also host events to showcase a particular cultural event – say, a Diwali celebration or a Black History Month exhibition or some such. Even if an event is aimed at an adult crowd, if it interests you, take it in. You can always transmit the experience to your child(ren) via dinner table conversation.

Children are generally pretty good at learning whatever their exposure teaches them. If they’re exposed to racist attitudes or they see other groups treated with fear and distrust, they’ll learn to be fearful and distrustful. But given the opportunity to become familiar with different kinds of people, they generally learn to be open-minded and open-hearted.

We might well be born to discriminate. But fortunately, we’re also born to evolve above it.

Zombie Blondes

Cover art for "Zombie Blondes" by Brian James

Image courtesy of fantasticfiction.co.uk.

Title: Zombie Blondes

Author: Brian James

Year of Publication: 2008

Genre Keywords: friendship, high school, horror, mystery, popularity, suspense, teen, young adult fiction, zombies.

Plot Summary: Hannah has spent her whole life moving from town to town, and she’d love the chance to fit in somewhere – but for the new girl, that’s almost always impossible. In her new town, though, she might have a chance; the popular cheerleaders are taking an interest in her. Unfortunately, her uncool friend Lukas wants her to believe that the cheerleaders and football players – even some ordinary townsfolk! – are actual zombies, the kind he reads about in his horror comics. Hannah figures that’s crazy . . . although it’s true that the identical cheerleaders will ask her to alter her appearance, devote herself to the squad, and even change her name. But is that really too great a sacrifice when Hannah will finally get a chance to fit in?

Who’ll Love It: Anyone who remembers what it’s like to yearn for popularity and acceptance. It’s easy to see that Hannah is walking into trouble, but Brian James does a great job portraying the way Hannah’s desire to be popular overrides her critical thinking, so she finds herself making excuses and rationalizing whatever sets off warning flags in her head.

When I picked up this book I wondered whether Brian James, being male, could pull off writing about the world of high-school girl-fighting. After all, female social arrangements don’t really work the same as male ones. But either he has an inside source or he’s extraordinarily observant: I thought he nailed all the hidden cattiness and manipulation that comes with girl-bullying.

Fun Trivia: If you Google “Zombie Blondes”, theresult that comes up under ‘image search’ is pretty unusual – it features the same title-page image over and over again. It’s positively creepy . . . but I think it goes with the subject matter of the book perfectly. Try it and see what you think.

Sex and the Soybean

Image created by Jacqueline Chai. Click to check out her work!

Just to make sure everyone knows where my biases stand on the question as a consumer of foodstuffs, I’m allergic to soybeans. I actually cannot eat them because of the protein content. (See phenylketonuria.)

But the librarian in me, which is committed to the value of critical thinking in eliminating misinformation, was fascinated by this article from Macleans.ca about whether soy can cause negative effects in those – especially men – who consume it. These negative effects? Homosexuality, shrinking penises, low sperm-count, and general feminization.

Really? Those are negative effects? Well, that’s the first critical-thinking problem I’d like to nip in the bud.

If you think becoming more feminine is the scary bugaboo it’s being considered in this and other health scares, I’m going to have to burst your bubble right now. The world takes all kinds of people, and it’s dealing in stereotypes that produces heath-myths like this one. Men can be feminine without being gay, gay without being feminine, both or neither or something else entirely. Truth be told, what’s feminine is basically what the society around us says is feminine. If women are allowed to embrace behaviours our society calls masculine – hooray for feminism! – maybe it’s high time men were accepted even when they don’t shy away from our feminine stereotypes.

Web authors like Jim Rutz (from uber-conservative website World News Daily) talk about fears of soy-induced sexual confusion as if it isn’t a normal part of being alive and discovering oneself. Who hasn’t experienced that to some degree? But it’s exacerbated by the rigid expectations of our society, strict rules about what makes us male or female, masculine or feminine – rules that really don’t have any place in a society where it’s okay to be the best and most honest version of yourself.

Penis size? Nobody cares, and most women I know agree that bigger isn’t always better. If soybeans actually shrank penises, well, I know ladies who would be calling on their men to get a prescription! Low sperm count is a legitimate health concern for men who still hope to have kids one day, but we should leave behind the idea that reproductive problems make you less of a man (or woman, for that matter.) And I can understand not wanting to be gay because of the stigma in our society against it, but honestly, the problem there is STIGMA, not soybeans.

Bottom line? If there are health concerns around soy, we should approach them as health concerns. Let’s filter out all these myths about what makes someone masculine or feminine, the ones that make any soybean scare seem threatening, not just to your body, but to who you are at the core. Nothing you ever eat will change who you are. So let’s all relax.

Now, on to the health bit. The scientific consensus indicates that soy can be beneficial. It’s a health food, for heaven’s sake! (Check out the Soy Fears page on Bryanna’s Vegan Feast for a comprehensive collection of soy facts and myths.) The problem is that, in our Internet society, bad news about soy travels way faster than the efforts people make to correct the myths created by bad scientific studies that play into our least scientific social fears.

How come? Well, bad news always travels more quickly; if you’ve got a soy-loving brother, you’re more likely to be galvanized to send him an article about how soy causes infertility than to send him an article that says how soy prevents cancer. Even more, though, soy is a health food and the pressure to live healthy is enormous. If you’re no great fan of soy products, any news that gives you a “get-out-of-soy-free” card is going to really appeal to you. It’s a lot easier to say, “Of course I’m concerned about my health – who isn’t? – but soy has such negative health effects.” It doesn’t look quite so good to say, “I’m concerned about my health, but to be honest, I just really wanted that Big Mac with fries, and supersize it!”

Just think about the irony; Richard Béliveau did. “We eat junk food,” he observes; “we’re facing the biggest obesity problem in the history of mankind, and we question that soy could lead to a health problem.” Weighing soy against some of the fast-food junk we eat, how can we possibly think that the junk food comes out on top?

Well, if junk food just makes us fat, but soy makes us gay, that’s how. We live in a culture that’s so uptight about sexuality. Fortunately, most of the scary stories about soy aren’t scientifically supported. But unfortunately, they pack an emotional punch that makes critical thinking tricky.

And until we get a grip on our fears about sexuality, that’s going to be a problem.

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