Stereotypes, Racism and My Two Front Teeth

There is something odd about Stereotypes. We all recognise them as being intrinsically wrong. After all they assume that everyone is alike, which they obviously aren’t. The only trouble is that clearly there is something right about stereotypes too. Whether you like it or not, the Americans are gun-toting, the French are arrogant, the Japanese do take pictures of everything and the English do create “little england” wherever they go. That is not to say that all of them are, but enough to make it a reasonable stereotype.

If they are a reasonable picture of a people or a culture though, why are we so offended by them. In the UK we had a hit show in the 70’s called “Mind Your Language”. It was totally successful right up to the end of its run, and had massive viewing figures. It was however racist, and ITV took it off the air. The show was about an english speaking school. The english teacher would try to teach people from different nationalities the nuances of english. The french lady was whistful and sexy, the italian man was passionate and gaudy, the japanese man had a strict code of conduct and so on.

My mother is Chilean and she loved it. She recognised and associated with the spanish bartender character Juan. She understood his protective family values, she laughed herself silly when Juan would treat Mr Brooks the teacher like his closest brother, and laughed harder still when he would raise his fists at the teacher and threaten him with a “punch up”. The truth is that in Chile, they have strong family values. They are very protective, and should you be welcomed into the family circle of friends then you really are like the lost brother returned. I experienced this myself when were in Chile. I had never met these people my mother introduced me to, but their welcome was honest and heart-warming in a way I had not experienced before.

This show was filled with stereotypes, from the efficient german au pair, to the chairman mau quoting chinese lady. It was also filled with warmth celebrating our differences and understanding that each nationality has a different set of problems when trying to conform to the british way of thinking.

In the end, as the world got more PC, this well watched show was shown to be racist. As a brit I understand that on the one level we are just laughing at the funny foreigners and their stupid ways. On another hand though it was saying we are all different, let’s not be frightened to say so.

The truth is that each and every stereotype has come from somewhere. There are however, reasons for them. Not excuses exactly, but reasons. There is a stereotype of the English being arrogant and nationalistic, superior and outspoken. Pretty much everything you get from Al Murray’s “The Pub Landlord”. We have an unhappy history in England, we have lorded it over half the world for many years. We have exported “Britishness” and reaped its rewards. And now we are paying for it. The English are disliked the world over for its oppressive history. From our closest neighbour Scotland, to Australia on the other side of the world, everyone enjoys seeing us fail.

We are not an apologetic people as a rule however, so instead of crawling into a corner we stubbornly stand out unabashed claiming how wonderful we must be for everyone to want to beat us. We become visciously protective of our nationalism, shouting from the highest rooftop how we do things better than everyone else, and no-one will tell us what to do, especially those foreigners in Europe. Obviously this isn’t everyone, but all the english feel this streak of jingoistic zeal around them.

When asked “What is England?” however, we tend to struggle. We know its not double decker buses and beefeater hats, but over hundereds of years of trying to keep an empire, then a commonwealth and always a United Kingdom we lost our identity in a way the Scots, Irish and Welsh would never have done.

To say “What is Britain?” however! We know instantly of a proud nation fighting alone against insurmountable odds, of a parliament that was the template of governmental process around the world, of a system of laws and courts that balances our sense of equality and justice, of a talented and well educated people that have influenced the worlds thinking from Charles Darwin to Isaac Newton, that changed the way we see the world from William Shakespeare to George Orwell, and who led the world in creative invention from Isambard Kingdom Brunel’s brindges to  Adam Smiths ideas on competition.

Anyway, the reason I mention all of this is because this Christmas I am staying with my brother in Scotland. He is 5 years older than me and we used to do exactly what the archetypal stereotype of brothers do. We fought all the time, were horrid to each other at every opportunity, we were jealous and competitive at every turn but we would fight side by side if someone hurt us, and backed each other through thick and thin when trying to get one past our parents.

Today as we were driving through the snow, some of the old arguments were brought up. There was no way that I could compete with my brother physically when I was young so I learnt how to get to him emotionally. In fact I became an expert in it. I could get him to fight me within a minute if I wanted to, and since he had no reasonable response, he would end up punching my teeth out. I would claim the moral victory and get the double bonus of him getting unfairly told off by my parents. By pointing out irritating failings in his comments I managed to provoke the same angry response I got all those years ago.

Now I’m not 8 and he isn’t 13. My brother and I are both mature now, and we’re smart enough to know what was happening, so he didn’t get told off by my parents, and I still have my teeth, but as he protested telling me I am argumentative, and as I frustrated him  by reminding him of his unreasonable opinion, I thought about how we got to where we are now. How just like glaciers carved the rock into hills and valleys, our time growing up together helped carve our personalities. As last night wore on, and the entire population of Aberfeldy tried in vein to take on the Allen boys in doubles pool. I felt so proud to be once again back to back with him taking on the world.

Stereotypes aren’t always wrong, they aren’t always unjust, but the truth is that they don’t tell the whole story. Searching for the larger picture can be fun, entertaining and inspirational. Assuming a people have a “type” is not as big a problem as not asking where the “type” came from.

~ by eggplantinspace on December 24, 2009.

2 Responses to “Stereotypes, Racism and My Two Front Teeth”

  1. That wasn’t the point, the point was that a lot of Americans own guns (more than other nations) – statistics will prove that.

    ‘Twas a decent piece bar the odd grammatical error 😉


  2. Back that truck up for a second…. exactly HOW MANY guns do I own? Speak for yourself when you say stereotypes are accurate. Not for everyone.


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