This past weekend, I read two superb articles on the TIME website.
Both were penned by Detroit area high-school students. Both dealt with stereotypes. And both students experienced feelings of having been discriminated against for who they were – namely: themselves.
The first article, I Don’t "Speak White" by Taylor Tramell, a senior at Mumford High School, wrote that as early as elementary school, she had been teased by other African-American students for "speaking white."
Taylor went so far as to say,
"It used to hurt to know that I wasn’t accepted by my race. I didn’t understand what they meant by ‘talking white.’ Worse yet, I was light-skinned. I was not accepted because of these things. I just did not fit in. I found myself hating my voice and the complexion of my skin."
The second article, I Don’t "Act White" by Joshua Jamerson, a junior at Renaissance High School, was similar in nature to that of Taylor’s.
"For a while now, probably since the beginning of high school three years ago, I’ve been called white, or it’s been said that I ‘act white,’ when I say or do something that doesn’t fit my designated stereotype as a Detroit-bred, black male teen."
I felt for both of these young people. No one should have to defend their decision to behave respectfully. Yet, that’s exactly what these two young people had to do.
Their articles related their experiences of being stereotyped and discriminated against because of their ethnicity – or more accurately, for not behaving according to certain ethnic stereotypes. But it seemed to me that they were also defending themselves against the stereotypes. Worst of all is that the "charges" being laid against them came from their peers.
Not surprisingly, the thought occurred to me that what these two students have endured strongly parallels the experiences which many of our nation’s homeless go through in their battle against stereotyping.
I don’t know anyone who isn’t at least somewhat familiar with the typical homeless stereotype.
However, for some the stereotypes are so deeply ingrained in their minds that they find it difficult to believe that every homeless person is not a drunk, a drug addict, a derelict – or whatever other derogatory label that has been used to describe our nation’s homeless citizens. In fact, even when presented with hard data to the contrary, some still refuse to accept that the majority of homeless do not fit the stereotype.
It is this inability – and sometimes even the refusal – to see beyond the narrow ideas of what homelessness is, why it occurs and who can be afflicted by it, which sets up social barriers. This in turn, prevents us from wanting to provide the types of services and resources which could significantly reduce the numbers of people living on the streets of our communities.
Oddly enough, we fail to recognize that holding on to those stereotypes – and believing in them as though they were fact – actually harms our communities. And, it costs us more in the long run.
The majority of the time, when a local organization or government wants to provide and/or expand services for the homeless, there are those who strongly (and loudly) oppose it.
Their arguments are always the same: it will draw more homeless to area; it will cause a rise in the crime rate; it will hurt business; it will devalue the neighborhood – and so on.
In the end, local politicians (because they are looking to be re-elected) acquiesce to those who rant and rave the loudest that it’s a bad idea and the proposed services are either shelved altogether or placed in locations that are difficult for the homeless to access.
In addition, stereotyping the homeless can create employment barriers, thereby making it more difficult for a homeless person to attain some measure of self-sufficiency.
Consequently, instead of helping the homeless get off the streets and into housing – and thereby reducing homelessness – the number of homeless continues to increase. The higher the number of homeless persons in any community, the more it costs local residents – not only in tax dollars, but in peripheral services such a emergency room visits and so on.
The reality is that most of the homeless citizens in our communities are basically decent people. They would like nothing more than to become contributing members of society.
Unfortunately, because of the stereotypes and misconceptions surrounding this social and economic condition, our nation’s homeless are not only faced with the daunting task of basic survival, but – like Taylor Tramell and Joshua Jamerson – they have to defend themselves against the stereotypes as well.
I think Joshua said it best: "That doesn’t bode well for any of us."