Stereotypes and Preconceived Notions About Race

I’m currently reading a book called Waking Up White: and Finding Myself in the Story of Race by Debby Irving.

Waking Up White

I have written about race a little bit on this blog, but I find I tend to skirt the tough topics. Race is an integral part of the South, and since I write Southern Literature, I thought I would do a series on race on this blog. In her book, Debby Irving poses questions at the end of each chapter. I’m going to use these questions to guide my discussion. I hope you all will leave comments and answer the questions too. I plan to do about two of these a week, but I will skip the week of December 6th-December 12th.

The first question posed in Irving’s book is “What stereotypes about people of another race do you remember hearing and believing as a child? Were you ever encouraged to question stereotypes?”

I had problems with this question. I grew up in Montgomery, Alabama. I went to a public elementary school. I never thought, as a child, that black people were different from me. I knew my neighborhood was vastly white. We lived in a two story house. I walked to school. My school was diverse.

Probably the biggest stereotypes I could think of that were imparted to me, not so much by my parents as my peers, were thinking black people were great dancers and athletes. Then as I got older, I thought the majority of gang members in Montgomery were black. I attributed this to their circumstances. When I grew up in Montgomery, public schools still did well (vastly different from today). But there were a lot of private schools. My parents transferred me to one in the 5th grade. The private school I went to, The Montgomery Academy, was founded in the 1960s in part to keep the white children segregated from the black children – a clear “fuck you” to the Civil Rights Movement.

At my private school, I stereotyped the black kids, assuming they were all there on scholarships. I think this was because I’d been raised to think that African Americans had less than white people did. They lived in West Montgomery. I’d heard rumors they might move into McGehee Estates and that would lower our property value. Later on, there was white flight from West Montgomery to East Montgomery. The city kept trying to move away from “the race problem.”

I’m not sure my parents raised me to question stereotypes. My dad is intellectually minded, and both my parents certainly raised me to question the status quo, but there were certain expectations too, which kept race aligned with little mingling.

I clearly remember at age thirteen attending a Bar Mitzvah (or Bat Mitzvah—can’t remember which friend it was for), and dancing with a friend of mine who happened to be black. I thought nothing of it. He was my friend, and I liked him. When I came home that night, my mom sat me down and told me several parents had called concerned I had danced with a black boy. I was astounded by this, because I couldn’t believe these parents had the audacity to mingle in my life.

I remember saying something like, “Why does it matter?”

“Because they’re a different culture than us,” my mom said something like this.

In my childhood, it was noted that white people date and marry white people, and black people date and marry black people, and that mixing the races was frowned upon. I know this was a holdover from my mom’s childhood and the way she was raised.  My mom has changed so much since then.

And suffice it to say, it damaged my friendship with him. I pulled away, and I stayed pulled away, even after his father died. I did not know how to let myself get close to him, based on other people’s perception of our relationship/friendship. I didn’t want to be the talk of the town. But I also couldn’t understand why who I liked depended on the color of their skin. I had a questioning mind, and I questioned these types of assumptions and racial problems even back then.

What stereotypes do you have about people of another race? 

For More Blog Posts in this Series, click the links below:

Family Values and Principles

You’ve Got Class

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11 thoughts on “Stereotypes and Preconceived Notions About Race

  1. First of all, Lauren, I think it’s great that you’re discussing questions from your reading on racial stereotypes/assumptions here. We need to do a lot of talking in our country on this issue. I was born into the Civil Rights era and grew up with changing ideas on school segregation, intermarriage, etc. That said, the town of my childhood was all white and bordered on another town that was mostly black. The two towns consolidated their school system just as I was starting junior high. That was also the year Martin Luther King, Jr. was assassinated. Everyone mixed to some degree in the lunchroom and at dances, but there were tensions, largely it seemed to me caused by what was happening in the outside world. Many white people moved house to the next white town/white school, including my parents. My dad was from the deep south and thought blacks were inferior, gays were psycho child molesters, and Jews were just bad (my best friend was Jewish). He also thought women should know–and stay in–their “place.” So, as a child of the ’60s and an adolescent, I rebelled against all these stereotypes. I remember breaking into tears once, when I was in elementary school, because I didn’t want my dad to have so much hate.

    What I’m trying to say is that the times, my dad, and my own nature (“too sensitive” to everything) shaped my conviction at an early age that all stereotypes are shorthand for fear/hate. I also felt that few people “got me” and so identified as an outsider–someone apart from my white privileged world.

    Liked by 1 person

    • I agree that stereotypes come from a place of hate or misunderstanding. I think more people need to explore their relationship to race. This book is so great, because the author didn’t think she was racist, but exploring her past made her see the way she grew up colored her vision on how she perceived race. She was finally able to see the stereotypes she had on black people (and white people). I think if more people went through an exercise like this they’d have a little bit of a better idea about how other races think about us (white people), and how we project our expectations, ideals, and stereotypes onto them–maybe without even knowing we’re doing it.

      Liked by 1 person

      • “and how we project our expectations, ideals, and stereotypes onto them–maybe without even knowing we’re doing it.”
        Yes, this is vital because I think it’s impossible not to “assume” what life is for someone else from our own viewpoint or to see ourselves as “the norm.” We can never really get outside our own skin. We know the world from what our eyes see. It’s part of the human condition, and having a dialogue with others is the corrective.

        Liked by 1 person

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  4. I moved here for one year in 1968 from Japan. My father was a military officer. I never heard any negative comments about people of other races until I moved here. I was 8 years old. I was confused and did not understand how one could feel like that about other human beings. Then JFK was shot. Now it seems very odd for that to have been announced on the intercom. As I was walking out of the school, other kids were cheering our President’s death. In shock, I looked straight ahead and saw my mither’s car directly in front of me. Normally a bus student, I asked why she came to pick me up? She said she knew what the reaction would be and she didn’t want me exposed to it. I witnessed colored only water fountains, dimes required to use the restrooms, and segregated schools. Then we moved to the protective environment of a military installation for 2 years where we were isolated from racist speech and segregation.
    The killing continued with MLK and then RFK. When we returned to Alabama, I was again stunned by the reaction to de-segregation in schools, parks and pools. It seemed stupid to close facilities rather than share. When I spoke to one of a few girls who chose to attend my formerly white junior high, the white girl near us sighed in disgust, slammed her locker and stopped off. The black girl turned her back without speaking and left. My attempt to be friendly marked her as a problem. Fortunately, I did not suffer any consequences other than being embarrassed at my own niaivet. But I never have forgotten that.
    Now in this time of darkness, in addition to trying to speak up appropriately, I started smiling and speaking intentionally to minorities and strangers, even when passing in the car or stopping next to a red lighted. It is surprising how broadly they will smile back. They go from looking guarded in the presence of a privileged white woman to being relaxed. Try it. It is a small gesture but it sends a message that I am not fearful and therefore do not hate.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thank you for your story Nancy. I, like you, and quite friendly and smile often. Engaging other people goes a long way. I also think we all need to speak to each other about race and privilege. I’ve started throwing down my guard with my black friends, and I think it makes a difference. They appreciate my candidness and have even told me they think I’m brave to broach the subject. I know I come from a place of privilege, and my kids do too, but I hope I’m teaching them that people are people and we need to start accepting each other for who we are. We need to stop racism in its track by opening up the dialogue and listening.


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