Cultural Fears & Stereotypes

Memorial On the BeachOne day while walking into the building at my old job, I was approached by a co-worker we’ll call “Tina”. Tina and I worked the same schedule so we frequently chatted on the daily walk from the parking lot to the building. With a look of fear and great concern, she asked me if I had “seen the guy with the beard” that was “wandering around” the building. Tina stated she was freaked out by him and contacted security.

Curious to find out more information about this “scary” bearded man, I started asking her to describe him to me. If some weirdo was running around the office, I wanted to know who he was. She provided me with approximate physical dimensions, hair color, etc. Then, she stated he was wearing a hat and described what I knew to be a “yarmulke” or “kippah” worn by Jewish men. “You know Tina,” I told her, “…if the gentleman was Jewish, then his beard would be an important part of his culture just like his cap.” Since I’m familiar with some Hasidic requirements, I shared that information with her hoping to ease her fear. We discussed this for a few more minutes and then went off to our separate cubicles.

As I left the office at the end of the work day, Tina approached me once again. She said “I wanted to thank you for our discussion this morning about the guy with the beard. Come to find out, he was an applicant waiting for an interview so I was afraid for no reason. After talking to you I realized I have a fear of men with beards.” She couldn’t pinpoint what caused the fear, but she was relieved at her own self-realization.

What intrigued me most about this interaction was my co-worker’s blindness to her own fears. Then I started wondering how many others are out there, holding onto irrational and unidentified cultural fears that shape behavior? Also, how many adults instill their own preconceptions of race, culture, religion, sexual preference, disability, etc. into their impressionable children? I was 6 when I first discovered what bigotry and prejudice were. Thankfully, my precocious and stubborn nature as a child allowed me to battle the racial hatred spewed at me constantly by my father. Other cultures have always fascinated me, so I rebelliously pursued learning everything I could. Since my dad scared the hell out of me, all of my learning had to be done without him finding out.

In secret, I developed my own philosophy about people…a philosophy I still live by today:

  • That people are basically good, and that greater knowledge helps them shift their thinking away from fear; and
  • That you can be completely different from another human being, yet CHOOSE to view them through a lens of equality.

So many people are afraid of things just because they don’t understand them. Take a look at the photo on this post for example. It was a beautiful memorial photographed on a beach not far from my home. Done in the Native American “dream catcher” style, it was built from driftwood, beer cans, Tiki torches, solar lawn lights, a soccer ball, and included a child’s hand-written note that says “Austin you were the best brother in the world. I [heart] you Amelia.” In my view, it was a touching and creative way to honor someone. However, I’m sure there are those who came across this hand-crafted shrine and looked at it with fear, anxiety, or judgement.

What about you? Do you harbor prejudices, stereotypes, or ethnocentric philosophies? Do you say derogatory things about different cultures without even thinking about it? Do you fear a certain race, creed, religion, etc. without any danger to justify it?


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