My much-better known and prolific and social-media savvy colleague in ministry, Bruce Reyes-Chow, has just published at book called, “But I don’t see you as Asian!” (https://www.facebook.com/ButIAmAsian) and it got me thinking about stereotypes, and why they persist. We have all been told that “stereotypes are wrong!” and that “stereotypes are bad!” and we feel guilty when we realize we’ve succumb to them. And yet, they persist. Why? As always, the question is, “what is going on in our brains?”
I think we can all agree that he is Asian, and a savvy person might go so far as to identify him as Korean. And you would be right! Matthew “Moon Kyoo” Whong was born in North Korea on the Yangztee River dividing China from Korea. He survived elementary school under Japanese occupation, then as a teenager, fled by himself to the presumably safer South Korea during the Korean War. He eventually made his way to this country, with, as he likes to remind us all, “$1 in his pocket!” and when the religious sect the “Moonies” became popular, he changed his name to “Matthew.” So yes, Korean.
How would you categorize him, using racial and/or ethnic categories. Some might say Italian, or Hispanic, Puerto Rican, maybe? Well, what’s his name – Maybe that would give us a clue? Paul Edward Whong – Ah – Korean, perhaps? Well, you’d be part right. What if I told you as a child he was also known as Paolo Eduardo.
Stymied? He was born in Brazil. Wait a minute!
So, the guy looks like something other than “Caucasian,” but again, hard to place – and the girl looks downright Irish, with the freckles, strawberry hair, grey eyes.
Scratching your head yet?
Well, this is my family. My mother-in-law was born in South Carolina; my father-in-law in North Korea; my husband in Brazil, which makes my two kids ¼ Koreans who carry Brazilian passports along with their US citizenships. Yeah. It’s confusing.
So why in the world, when clearly stereotypes don’t work (My daughter has been asked more than once if she’s adopted, carrying the last name of “Whong.”) why DO they persist? And why do we want to know so badly what someone “is?” Why does even our eye doctor need me to fill out the racial-ethnic profile of my kids?
Because our brains do some things super, super well, and conserving energy is one of those things. What does that look like in day-to-day life? Well, categorizing saves time and energy. Our brains suck up 20% of our caloric expenditures in a day. Any chance it has to cut back on unnecessary fuel use, it will take it. So, stereotypes persist, because those stereotypes save energy while helping us distinguish between “life-threatening tigers” and “just a kitty-cat.”
Which is no excuse, just an explanation. The beauty of our brains is that we’ve been given a higher functioning area, and are no longer dependent on our more ancient, survival – driven amygdala – limbic – aka reptilian brain. Our prefrontal cortex gets to step in, and say, “Hmm. Let’s look closer at this situation. Is quick stereotyping or categorizing the way to go here? No, probably not.”
But first you have to be honest that you have been stereotyping, even unconsciously. Researchers Xu, Zuo, Wang, and Han discovered that more exposure to people who are different will calm down the instinctive heightened anxiety of being around people who are different. So go beyond your usual circle, and interact with people who are different. Your brain will thank you for it, because it will work not only more efficiently, but more compassionately.