Stranger in a Strange Land

or: I have always been dependent on the strangeness of kindred

Not to be confused with Heinlein’s masterwork of the same title. What I’m looking at is Claude Steele’s work on “stereotype threat.” This is an awkward shorthand way of saying that “when a person’s social identity is attached to a negative stereotype, that person will tend to underperform in a manner consistent with the stereotype…[due] to a person’s anxiety that he or she will conform to the negative stereotype.” (see

What rouses such anxieties? One of the biggies is finding yourself in a context where you are the only [person of color/woman/LGBT/person with a disability/ etc-etc], or anyway one of a very few, around mostly “normal” people (white straight able-bodied males, usually.) Steele, of course, is mostly dealing with race, because, as an African-American academic, this is what affects him and his students.

But That Other Blog, quoting , tells us that the New York Times can have the same effect on “devout Catholics, gun owners, Orthodox Jews, Texans” and other non-secularist non-liberal types. My first impulse (as a Hispanic Jewish woman) is to say “ain’t that too damn bad.” I know this is a failure in charity (as a former Catholic, I sometimes fall into such locutions.) An Orthodox Jewish Texan gun owner who feels bad undoubtedly feels just as bad as a Hispanic Jewish woman, and has just as little control over it.

But Steele’s analysis applies a lot more broadly than he intends, and needs to be more carefully examined for that reason. It’s the other side of identity politics. Identity politics fails to account for the complexity of almost everybody’s identity. So does “stereotype threat.” Everybody has an “identity.” In fact, everybody has at least two or three of them. Most Americans have lots of them. And there is a negative stereotype attached to almost every identity.

“The Episcopal Church Welcomes You. The Anglican Communion, not so much.”
“What do you call somebody who hangs out with musicians?” “A drummer.”
“If you weren’t Jewish, what religion would you like to be?” “Lubavitch.”
“What do you call a middle-aged atheist with a wife and two school-aged kids?” “A Unitarian.” I’m just rummaging in the grab bag of my recent memory for negative stereotypes attached to some rather uncommon identities, and these popped up right away. You probably have a bunch of them on tap too. Feel free to share them. We all need a good laugh once in a while. Remember Stan Freberg’s routines on substituting “Swiss” for the ethnic minority of the week, so as not to offend anybody? That continued to be funny right up until a few months ago when Moammar Ghadafi declared Switzerland Libya’s Public Enemy Number One, for reasons I don’t quite remember now.

See also , which specifically references “the mass media, where, for instance, on prime-time television, between two-thirds and three-fourths of the characters are male, and almost all the female characters are young, sexually attractive, and unmarried. The ratio of 1 woman to 2, 3, or 4 men is a fairly popular one, and turns up in some surprising places. Until civil rights legislation finally took hold, it was the accepted ratio, set by the admissions office,
between male and female students at Harvard, for instance, and between men and women at many other institutions of higher education.”

See also and the responses thereto. When 53% of the world’s population can be made to feel like a minority, there is something wrong.

But of course, it isn’t only (only!?) 53% of the world’s population. It’s just about everybody.Religious believers feel negatively stereotyped in the mainstream US media. Non-believers feel negatively stereotyped in the political arena. In various places, one can feel negatively stereotyped for being married, single, celibate, childless, parents, gay, straight, tall, short, fat, thin, “normal” weight, literate, illiterate, and so on. The easiest way to avoid “stereotype threat,” of course, is to hang out only with people as similar to oneself as possible. In as complex a society as ours, surrounded by an even more complex system of media representation, that’s just about impossible. All I have to do to feel alienated (that’s really what we’re talking about here) is watch one hour of television, any channel, any time. It’ll probably work for you, too, whoever you may be.

You will not see yourself in the mass media. The people you do see will be different enough to make you feel insecure.

So Dr. Steele is making a more universal case than he intended, and therefore the remedies he proposes are insufficient.“Stereotype threat” is the frakking human condition. So how do we deal with it? “I’m just a poor wayfarin’ stranger, wanderin’ through this world of woe,” the spiritual says. “World of woe” is going a bit far for my liking, but “wayfaring stranger” makes perfectly good sense. From the moment I recognize that mama is different from me, and can’t be relied on to be there and provide what I need all the time, a wayfaring stranger is what I am, what we all are. Each of us is a prisoner in the solitary confinement of our own skull.

Grace is what enables us to reach out and make contact, and imagine we understand what other people are feeling. Grace is what enables us to accept people who are irretrievably different from ourselves, and to accept ourselves as being irretrievably different from them, and to form communities with those people which generate the fewest possible stereotypes and threats. The only place you will ever see yourself is in a mirror, which is not a great place to hold a stimulating conversation.Everyplace else, what you see is Other People. No doubt Sartre was right in saying that’s one definition of hell. It is also a definition of heaven. It is the only heaven we can ever expect.

Jane Grey

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