Now question: Is every nigga with dreads for the cause? Is every nigga with golds for the fall? Naw. So don’t get caught in appearance. It’s Outkast, Aquemini, another black experience.

Stereotypes are not inherently a bad thing. In fact, they can be quite helpful in understanding a complex society in which nothing stays the same. Like anything though, stereotypes has its limitations.

It engenders laziness on the part of the consumer, who uses them as the sole source of classifying groups of people. It’s when people don’t accept the exceptions to the rule that put a black eye around the term. I was recently at an outing, among a racially eclectic group, after class. We were talking about going out into the town, to kick it and what not. One of my Asian classmates then looked at me.

Do you like to dance?
Yea, a little bit. Depends on the mood.
I figured. Black people like to dance.

The assertion and boldness of that statement struck me like a mini-jackhammer. My initial reaction was no different than 90 percent of black folks in that situation. But then I thought about it. Black folks do like to dance. I could take umbrage at her brazenness, but I couldn’t deny that she had a point. Before I could get my next statement out, she spoke:

“That is a stereotype, I know. But many of the stereotypes against Asians are equally true.” She proceeded to rattle off about five Asian stereotypes that were quite funny and illuminating. But one thing stuck with me: There’s only one way to kill a stereotype.

Stereotypes, like technology, changes with the times. They’re updated constantly. Below are some examples of contemporary stereotypes:

  • Sagging pants as a sign of sartorial inferiority
  • Sagging pants and tattoos as a sign of classlessness
  • Small car as a sign of financial impotence
  • If you’re a black student at a historically white college and university, then you are on a minority scholarship.
  • If you’re a black student at a historically white college and university, then you are an oreo.
  • If you’re a black student at a historically white college and university, then you must be an athlete.
  • If you get along well with white people, then you’re a Tom.
  • If you talk too articulate, you’re also a Tom.
  • Don’t admit to living in public housing – social mobility will never happen for you.

I wonder what if Khadijah Williams would have listened to such banalities. She’s the newest success story: a black student who went to 12 different schools in 12 years. Williams was struggling to find a spot to lay her head; now she’s headed to Harvard. There are too many rags-to-riches accounts to discount anybody. One would think.

The late Michael Jackson was such a story. There’s not much chance for hope growing up in Gary, Indiana. Exceptional talent and drive are factors that transcend any barriers, which brings us back to the limitations of stereotypes. Positive stereotypes are all good. It’s the negative stereotypes that gives us pause.

Positive stereotype: Mexicans are hard workers.
Negative stereotype: Mexicans are never insured. So don’t get into an accident with them.

Positive stereotype: Jews have all the money.
Negative stereotype: Jews are extremely cheap.

Positive stereotype: White men run the country.
Negative stereotype: White women have no assets.

Positive stereotype: Asians are extremely gifted at math.
Negative stereotype: Asians driving skills leave much to be desired. So do Mexicans.

Who would argue that any of these allegations are complete lies? Very few, because in every cliche, there’s a general element of truth. Is it possible to widen a certain stereotype to be more inclusive of differences, or does that defeat the purpose of a stereotype? Khadijah William’s story and many others like them – MJ included – provides interesting ways to poke holes in the prevailing constraints of societal straitjackets. We can’t accept positive generalizations and then get mad at the negative ones. It all comes with the territory.

Stereotypes will never die until we learn how to respect the exceptions. Simply getting mad won’t make them disappear. Once those exceptions occur with so much consistency that it stops being an exception, then we can forge a new stereotype while effectively slaughtering the old one.

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