Yeah, unfortunately I stereotyped that young man!
My son and I were exiting an old flea market recently. It’s located in a rural area with a sign near the entrance that reads, “firearms permitted.” So it is safe to assume that some inside were probably armed.
And suddenly a big, black fellow approached us seemingly out of nowhere in a dusty parking lot teeming with SUVs and pickup trucks, more than a few brandishing confederate flags. The guy was big. I mean really BIG. And goateed. And unsmiling.
I inhaled. Deeply I inhaled.
You see, all kinds of knee jerk thoughts raced through my mind; among them, were we about to be robbed, can we outrun this dude, is my life insurance paid up, or should I just hand over my wallet?
However, he handed me a flyer that advertised the grand opening of his dad’s store nearby. I exhaled into the relief that I had more time on this Earth. I also felt relieved that it was my son and me he approached, both of us African American, and not someone else who may have blown him into smithereens in fear of his bigness, his blackness.
But I was also troubled that, bam, just like that I had fallen into the trap of stereotyping. Yes me, a guy who’s been in the anti-stereotyping training business as a trainer for years. And that did not feel so good at all.
So in a way to compensate I guess, to salve my guilt, we visited the store a few days later – my bride and I – and met and got to know his dad. We immediately clicked with him and even made several purchases. He named me “Mr. T.” Minutes later his son, the big one we encountered in the parking lot came over, shook my hand and thanked me for stopping by. We were soon to learn that the young man is a recent college graduate who joined his dad’s business.
But the shame kept eating way at me.
So in an awkward attempt at humor, I blurted out to his dad that when his son approached us my first reaction was that I feared that he was about to rob us. He laughed, we all laughed, yet I left feeling that I shouldn’t have said that.
Did I stereotype this young man in the parking lot? If you, readers, had been in my shoes, would you have done the same? Did I cross the line with my “thought he was going to rob us” comment? I put these questions out to some folks whose views I greatly respect. Here’s what they told me:
Colette: yes, you stereotyped him. But at least you recognized it…. At least you are willing to acknowledge it. The problem is in the denial.
Roz: Yeah, you did but I know you’re a good person and now they do too.
Eddie: Yes my friend you definitely stereotyped him as most people would because he was big and black. But at least you didn’t run or seek to avoid contact.
Ed: Yes you did cross the line and stereotyped him. It’s the very reason many of us are now six feet under. Stereotyping is dangerous. However, so is passing out flyers in rural parking lots. What police officer would have his/her case made by saying that “all I saw was him coming at me with his arm stretched out and thought is was a firearm so I emptied my gun into him.” I respect the fact that you are asking about the situation you found yourself involved and the action you took. Take it as a teachable moment. Quit shopping in malls that are open to carrying and have questionable circumstances occurring. Seriously, unless we talk about our experiences we will never come together as the human race.
In closing and in parting, I asked myself this question: Is there a possibility – however remote – that my clumsy attempt at humor and constructive feedback may have saved this young man’s life should he return to that flea market?
And to my readers, is there the possibility, however remote, that you may save some young man’s life by sharing my experience and advice with someone else, say a parents of a young black male or a young man himself?
Hey, I’m just asking!
QUESTIONS FOR A THOUGHTFUL ANALYSIS:
(1) If one does not want to engage in negative stereotyping how can he/she reconcile that with could be a serious threat?
(2) Clearly this I took a risk by providing feedback to the dad here. Discuss those risks alongside the potential rewards for providing such feedback about such volatile matter with others in your circle.
(3) If you are the parent of a young black male, how could you possibly use my experience as a teachable moment, as my good friend Ed suggests, without him becoming overly fearful of his well-being and safety?
(4) If you are not an African American parent, what can you extract from this as teachable moments for others in your circle?
(c) Terry Howard is an award-winning writer, story-teller, trainer and senior associate with Diversity Wealth, a member of the Cross Cultural Academy and Contributing Writer with the Chattanooga News Chronicle, The American Diversity Report and New York-based Catalyst. He can be reached at email@example.com or firstname.lastname@example.org.