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Pet Sins September 2006

Americans abroad - dealing with African American stereotypes

I've visited a few Asian countries and not experienced any open insults directed at my race or color, but I'm of the opinion that this is not due to lack of prejudice in the local population, but rather that local people (at least those I've encountered) are too polite or do not dare to openly express such prejudices in my presence. The opinions that many Asians hold against blacks in general (and African Americans in particular) are more blatantly expressed to non-black Americans than to black Americans.

A white American friend who worked in Japan had to constantly deal with Japanese asking her questions about the 'scary and dangerous blacks' when planning their US vacations. It upset and annoyed her to no end, and she tried to explain to people that the stereotype wasn't true (she herself had spent part of her childhood in a largely black neighborhood). I guess I'm glad I don't have to deal with such remarks because people know better than to say things like this to my face. Another American friend, an Asian American, was visiting friends in Malaysia when people asked him about the "terrible blacks" in America. He replied that he had stayed in middle class black neighborhoods and did not find them any less safe than middle class non-black neighborhoods, and that poor neighborhoods, regardless of racial composition, were unsurprisingly more prone to economic crime.

In the cases of my two friends above, they were dealing with Asians who had never visited the United States, not to mention lived there. l wonder where such foreigners get this deeply ingrained idea of the 'criminal' blacks of America from. It is not as if the average person in these Asian countries reads a lot of American news about crime on the city/county level, and international news involving America typically does not touch on domestic crime. Maybe the culprit is American movies and TV serials, in which case, we should really be asking what kind of ideas we are exporting.

Then there were many cases of Asian returnees who worked or went to school in the US telling their acquaintances back home about 'educated whites' in the same breath as they blame America's problems on 'uneducated minorities' who 'commit crimes', as if all, or even most whites are 'educated', and all, or even most minorities are 'uneducated' and 'criminal'. It appears that some visitors have really picked up on the worst that America has to offer - the racism and blanket stereotyping - instead of learning from the positive end of the American spectrum of values - respect for the individual and making a stand against racism. And they go home and teach these stereotypes to their neighbors. Do such comments really reflect on the actual behavior of minorities in the US, or do they reflect more on the negative state of mind of the individuals who make them?

I acknowledge that the incarceration rate in black American communities is disproportionately higher compared to the national average. For the sake of argument, let's assume that the justice system is more or less fair, and most people of color in prison deserve to be there. Does that still justify the strong 'gut reaction' many foreigners have against black Americans? Take for example, the crime rate of men vs women - if I recall correctly, men are 20 times more likely to be violent offenders than women. American men are also less likely to finish college than American women. But is the average man treated by non-men with the same fear and stereotyping that black Americans get from people outside the US? (including some Africans, unfortunately) Absolutely not. In most situations, people do not talk about men as a group, despite their high crime rate, the way they talk about black Americans as a group. Men as a group are typically not written off as 'criminal' and 'uneducated', even though the statistics can support such an argument.

Men are not denied access to social networks, friendships, etc, based on the 'crime rate' of their 'group'. That is because despite the 'offences' attributed to the entire 'gender', people still treat men as individuals in most situations. Most people who are not men have interacted with men on a regular basis. This makes it harder for them to stereotype men as a group. Unfortunately, 'racial' or 'cultural' minorities do not have the same reach, and our 'individualism' is more abstract to those who do not know us.