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Produced & Maintained by Idaho Mountain Express, Box 1013, Ketchum, ID 83340-1013 
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Copyright © 2001 Express Publishing Inc.
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For the week of August 1 - 7, 2001

  Opinion Column

Prejudice check provides wake up call

Commentary by JoELLEN COLLINS

Negative or positive, (stereotypes) still employ labels that push people into pre-constructed boxes of behavior.

Itís time to recheck and review the stereotypes that I hold and to be accountable for any prejudices I may have. In spite of thinking I am relatively free of warped views of segments of mankind, I had an experience in San Francisco during a recent wedding weekend that showed me I need a tune-up.

Let me hasten to say that, along with the rest of humankind, I acknowledge many character flaws that are occasionally embarrassing to me. I do try, however, to be aware of the more negative aspects of my personality, at least to the extent that I try not to hurt others and to accept their patterns of life as fully as I would hope they would accept mine.

During that weekend I had some free time and decided to catch a flick at a favorite little movie theater near my hostessí home. A matinee made it even more of a guilty pleasure, as I escaped the routines of wrapping presents and being available to escort some elder members of my friendís family to the celebrations.

As I sat in the darkened theater before the showing of the film, two womenís voices from the seats just in front of me were clearly audible. A mother and daughter (about 17 years old) were having an argument, alternately in Chinese and English, over the spilling of the mother's popcorn. Apparently the daughter had knocked it over and, when her mother asked her to get a refill, she replied, "Get it yourself."

During the next few minutes she reiterated her unhelpful stand with phrases like, "You have two legs." "Stop blaming me, "and then the corker, "You always want me to do your work for you, and Iím sick of you!" I recall two predominant thoughts, both based on narrow-minded assumptions. One was that I was shocked a young woman of Asian descent would talk to her mother that way, and the second was that adolescence is a time of monstrous difficulty no matter with what society it coexists.

Before you hoist me by my own petard, to use a clichť, let me tell you that, while these thoughts hopped into my mind, they were followed by some introspection on my own prejudices and their sources and on the need to eliminate these in myself and, hopefully, in the world nearest me.

The first conclusion about Asian daughters respecting their mothers is, I suppose, a positive prejudice, but nonetheless a pre-conceived assumption based on racial stereotypes. Why shouldnít a second or third generation girl of Chinese heritage be just as much a teenager as anyone else in San Francisco? I realized my concepts about Asians had grown from my early childhood fascination with San Franciscoís Chinatown and readings of colorful books about China up through my reading at 14 of Pearl Buckís "The Good Earth." The musical "Flower Drum Song" didnít help, with itís picture of obedient women, nor did spending my teenaged years in white bread Burbank, California, both of which only reinforced my "romantic" picture of Asian family behavior.

Only when I got to UCLA and a larger ethnic population, then traveled to China, read more contemporary works by authors such as Maxine Hong Kingston or Amy Tan and, finally, lived in Thailand, did I begin to consistently view Asians as individuals rather than as generalized examples of certain (even though positive) characteristics.

Yet, my judgments in the movie theater only showed me how little I had traveled on the path to acceptance of other cultural influences in spite of all my reading and experience.

The other part of my unhappy conclusions in the cinema had to do with adolescence. Many parents of teenagers comment about the difficulties of helping their children emerge from this time as strong, well-centered people on the way to maturity. I have often joked about Dr. Hyam Ginottís statement, paraphrased here, that adolescents have to be irritating or we wouldnít be willing to push them out of the nest.

The reality is that I know so many absolutely wonderful adolescents that I am dismayed that I plug into the prejudices about them. The 10th grade English class I taught a year ago was composed of a group of very good, intelligent, caring, and hardworking young people who were also possessed with senses of humor and, in general, very wholesome attitudes about life. To include these terrific kids with the same group of media-portrayed adolescents who struggle unsuccessfully to grow in a tough world is unfair. Yet, I must be careful even in generalizing about their strong qualities, for fear that I might miss the cry of an individual for help or acceptance.

So I hope the next time I wax poetic about the qualities of any racial group I will remember that the opposite side of a positive stereotype just might be a negative one. The accolade that Asians are studious and honor scholarship might encourage the kind of rude comments Iíve heard people make about Asian driving habits. Both stereotypes are stereotypes, and that is all. Negative or positive, they still employ labels that push people into pre-constructed boxes of behavior. Just as I rail against your thinking I am possessed of certain qualities because of my age, so should I be respectful of otherís individualities.

The Idaho Mountain Express is distributed free to residents and guests throughout the Sun Valley, Idaho resort area community. Subscribers to the Idaho Mountain Express will read these stories and others in this week's issue.