Stereotypes and assumptions… from being offended to teachable moments

On my way from a meeting in Pennsylvania, I sat in my seat and took out the book I have started to read not long ago. The book is called Willpower by John Tierney. As I am reading the first paragraph that talks about conscious mind and unconscious mind relationship, I realize that my unconscious mind is interfering with my reading so much that I read the same small paragraph three times. As I try to quiet my unconscious mind , I realize that it is telling me to do something about a thought that has been bothering me greatly.
As part of what I do in my profession and in my personal life, I think about events, conversations a lot and reflect on them. I reflect on myself and challenge myself to be objective no matter how hard it is and how unpleasant the outcome may be. Am I being judgmental? Is this person stereotyping? Am I biased right now? Since last night, I have been unease with a simple dialogue with one of my colleagues whom I respect.
We went to dinner with a group of colleagues. I ordered a vegetarian dish with no particular reason. It sounded healthy and fresh! I guess we can say that was the reason. Here is the dialogue:
Colleague: Are you a vegetarian?
Me: No, in fact I love meat. I just wanted to have more veggies this time.
Colleague: Oh, ok. What kind of meat do you eat? Lamb?
Me: I like lamb. But I like meat in general.
I believe I said a few more things but it was all a blur because my mind was struggling to quiet down the real voice that wanted to say: “ Why lamb? Is it because I grew up in Turkey? Are you stereotyping? Unconsciously maybe but it sounds like you are stereotyping…No matter how well I know that this person would not mean to be offensive, I was offended and too shocked and unprepared to tell him how I felt. Well, earlier during the week we were talking about racism and how we all need to confront ourselves and be open to the question and lean in, and this simple question hit me. The other colleague whom I met for the first time asked me where I am from. I replied as I always do: I was born and raised in Turkey. Just as I thought, the second question followed: Oh, how long have you been living here? Later during the conversation someone asked if I went to public or private school. The moment I said “private school from 6th grade and on” she asked in awe: Are there private schools in Turkey? Deep breath… “yes, in fact it is very competitive”. Was this also a stereotyping issue? Why can’t we have private schools in Turkey? Why is it so surprising? It is not a communist country and there sure is not only one type of school or anything else for that matter.
So… no we do not just eat lamb and no we all do not go to public schools in Turkey. No we are not Arabs and we do not speak Arabic. Not all of us are wearing headscarves and covering ourselves from head to toe. It is time to enlighten others who are not familiar with our culture and our wonderful country. Yes, we have moving parts just like any other place around the world. This does not make us worse or better.
Another incident took place last week. I pick up my son from extended day. He comes crying and when I ask what happened he answers “ he called me a white boy and I told him I am NOT WHITE!”. You did not need to be a psychologist or a mind reader to see how angry and upset he was as he was trying his hardest to control his feelings. I asked to speak with the counselor who called him “white boy”. The counselor started to explain what happened. There was a problem. He was speaking Spanish under the assumption that I am Latina. Deep breath…I asked him to speak English as I do not speak Spanish. Then he continued saying that he called my son’s name but my son did not hear him and since everyone else was black and my son was the only white student he wanted to get his attention by calling him a white boy. Taaa daaa!!! Another deep breath and my hand goes up to stop him. I broke it down to him with a calm and soft tone that we refer to people by their name and not by their race adding that it is highly inappropriate to assume that someone belongs to a certain race because of his or her looks. I explained that my son is biracial and it is how he identifies himself respecting both of his parents and being proud of his identity. At that point, the counselor was almost in tears and said that he never had a bad intention. He was remorseful and apologized to me and to my son. Well, at least he took responsibility and I had the chance to take advantage of a teachable moment. After all, teachable moments are not only for children.
What now? Life goes on and I am sure this will not be the only time we will face with stereotyping and assumptions as it was not the first time. No, we cannot get mad, angry and upset each time something like this happens. We need to communicate, share and educate one another. Ask uncomfortable questions and confront the most difficult. Only then we will see a glimpse of change.

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