The bespectacled Asian child will know the feeling of being assumed to be boring, academic, and good at math; but they will not know what it’s like to be stereotyped as a lazy party animal; the tall, blonde, white-skinned American girl will, though they may at least take solace in the fact that at least she, unlike her, tall, dark-haired, ebony-skinned, male counterpart, will not be watched with wary eyes as he enters the corner store. But can any woman understand a man’s embarrassment when they stroll home at night, only to find women averting their paths to avoid his innocent meandering? And could the man understand the woman’s anxiety, when through her fearful eyes every shadowy form is a potential rapist?
And meanwhile, the son of an Indian man and a Korean woman will give pause to every form demanding that he categorizes his ethnicity into the rigid boxes of society – if he looks “totally Indian”, is he still allowed acknowledging the other half of his heritage? – which is a trial his androgynous classmate also feels when they must define themselves as “male” or “female” in order to register for healthcare. Some long phone-calls later, bureaucracy agrees to acknowledge them both as “other,” implying their deviance is not worth its own title, nor worth the administration’s time or consideration.
And maybe the Jewish teenager can’t understand this, but they do know what it is like to be told that “Judaism isn’t really an ethnicity anyways, right?” while closing their eyes and trying not to see the picture from Germany of their grandfather, face-up in a mass grave in Auschwitz, or of their family tree – children and women crossed off, whittled down to those who were lucky enough board the last boat sailing out of Europe. But at least their trials were immortalized by time, right? After all, they don’t know the frustration of their Chinese classmates when they must sit through class upon class on “World War II”, focusing almost exclusively on the European arena, as though twice as many Chinese civilians hadn’t been slaughtered by the Japanese armies in that far-off, foreign East. But hey, they’re both martyrs, who can feel pride that their family survived these horrors and have made their comebacks, stronger than ever – and the German and Japanese students, who squirm in their seats under their classmates’ accusing stares, as though these horrors are their fault by association, are obviously much better off.
But the Japanese and the Chinese student are brought together by their clenched fists and jaws when they are greeted with a teasing “Nihao” – “No,” says the Japanese student, “I don’t speak Chinese”; “No,” says the Chinese student, “I speak Cantonese, not Mandarin”; “Whatever,” says the offender, the hundreds of ignorant voices conglomerating across time and space to a solitary, hateful drawl, “Who cares, you all look the same.” Though the black student, overhearing this exchange, may recall that “nude” shades have always referred to the idealized pale tan, and that jokes about slavery still abound.
And maybe the Arab won’t know these feelings, but they will likely know the embarrassment of being pulled over at the border and called out at the airport – Every. Single. Fucking. Time. As though the grandmother or the little boy, by virtue of their ethnicity, must have explosives taped to their underwear. But wait – what about the middle-aged Middle-Eastern man? By matching the demographic of expected terrorists more closely, is it any less a tragedy that he be pulled aside – “Sorry, sir, but racial profiling has proved effective, it will only take a second…”
But if every country is to be judged by their most extreme, well, nobody is safe – and what of the Americans travelling abroad, fearful for their lives because of their government’s intolerant policies, sowing Canadian flags onto their backpacks in the hopes that this small cloth flag will save them from anger, righteous or not? Or of the perceived ignorance of Americans, of the countless jokes with the gun-totin’, idiotic, overweight redneck as the butt?
But speaking of overweight – can anyone slender truly understand the accusing stares received by the obese, of being clumped together regardless of the reason behind their extra weight – genetics, medication side-effects, or maybe they truly are that lazy, but we’ll just assume the latter because it’s easier, am I right? And can anyone full-figured understand the endless hounding of the skinny, “why don’t you eat more,” “you’re anorexic, aren’t you,” “are you sure you don’t take laxatives,” or, worse, “I wish I could be as skinny as you” – as though those countless hours at the gym, the painstaking counting of calories in vs. calories out, were really a simple matter of “luck.” Yes, you wish you could be as skinny as me – but you would never consider putting in the effort. Yes, you say weight loss is a matter of effort – but you don’t know that my antidepressants saved me from suicide, but slowed my metabolism to a crawl.
And speaking of long hours of effort – what about this poor (sorry, the “economically underprivileged”) man who works long, hard hours at a minimum wage job, not knowing whether his paycheck will cover both rent and food. There’s no doubt, he has it much harder than the rags-to-riches man working just as long and just as hard, but only the latter is being shamed for his work, accused for being paid more. And what about the child of either, blamed for being dealt cards they had no hand in choosing. “Spoiled,” come the sneers; “Ragged,” come the jeers.
But at least “rich” and “poor” aren’t commonplace insults; because no matter how rough a child’s neighbourhood, at least they can take solace in poking harmless fun with their friends, joking about how “gay” this thing is, how much of a “fag” that person is. If the homosexual who comes out of the closet in high-school comes home to a garage door with “FAGGOT” scrawled across it in bright red paint, are the tears he sheds while scrubbing away the insult – because there is no doubt, it was intended as an insult – worth any more or less than those who remain secretive about their desires, knowing the sort of fate that befalls those who speak out? And speaking of heteronormativity, heterosexuals never have to go through the trials of explaining their sexuality, since everyone is straight until proven otherwise – but at least when the neatly gay/lesbian/bisexual does come out, it’s a simpler affair than the endlessly requested explanations and clarifications of the demisexual, of the pansexual, and of those whose sexuality does not match any canned label.
And speaking of insults, what about the retards? That’s still a commonplace insult, isn’t it – “retarded.” Reducing anyone with a learning disability to their weakness, since they and their family will never escape that burden – instead of praising their strength, because despite taking twice as long to learn that math concept, they’ve damn well learned it all the same. And isn’t it a shame that nobody thinks twice about the other side of the coin – the gifted kids who are left to fend on their own, since “they’re smart, they’ll get by,” while funding is cut for programs catering to their special needs, as though the rate of suicide among the gifted were not skyrocketing.
And which physically able person can know the helplessness and pain of being or becoming physically disabled or, even worse, the pity dispensed by those who have no idea that you’ve overcoming it, you know how to live on your own, “I don’t need that help, thank you very much.”
And who among those both born and raised in the same country can know the struggle of uprooting oneself in immigration, of balancing integration with maintaining one’s culture, of learning a language, of frustrated tears shed when natives are unable to understand your accent.
And who other than an African-American or Hispanic young adult living in America can know the feeling of having one’s achievements doubted, “oh, you got into Yale? Yeah, I heard that they had a really good equity program.” Must… resist… urge… to… punch… Or, on the flipside, wondering if this equity program really did keep you out, because you know for a fact that your grades were better than Jim’s, but since Jim is Black and you are White/Asian, you’d better keep your trap shut because you’d be a racist otherwise.
And speaking of any potential difficulties associated with being white – no, shut up, you’re white so you have no right to speak of difficulties, you’re never described by your skin colour, you’re a blank page – but what of that censorship, isn’t that a difficulty in itself? What of the sense of drifting, of not belonging to a solid community, of being a boring default without a story? No, those aren’t difficulties, you aren’t allowed to have an opinion on race – you are White, you have no race.
But see, the underlying issue here isn’t that this group can’t know the troubles of that group, or that this group has it harder and that that group has it easier. The underlying issue is that yes, we are all human beings, unified by our solidarity under the banner of Planet Earth (kumbaya), but we are all so staggeringly different that nobody can truly claim to fully understand anyone else – let alone all those who fall within the boundaries of some socially-constructed group or another – and their ability (or inability) to comprehend or weigh in on an issue. Through family, friendship, or marriage, we can come close to total understanding – but we are, at the end of the day, imprisoned behind our own eyes. Take a moment and think about it.
You can look over at your loved one, co-worker, friend – and you will never, never know exactly what they are thinking and the entirety of the thought process leading up to it. We cannot blame heterosexuals for not understanding homosexuals, cis folk for not understanding trans folk, men for not understanding women, Whites for not understanding Blacks, Christians for not understanding Atheists, or Indian bisexual average-IQ teenage boys from France for not understanding Egyptian-to-Canada deaf and gifted immigrants. To blame one group for not understanding another is to miss the larger picture – that each human being lives their own life, and that their experiences, opinions, and reactions to situations are molded by factors as countless as the stars in the sky. Race, class, sexuality, gender, attractiveness, disability, intelligence – the moment we reduce someone to the sum of their traits is the moment we forget to look at them as a person. And avoiding the painful necessity of looking at someone as an individual is, at the end of the day, the goal of stereotyping. Only when we break free of this cycle will bigotry become a thing of the past.