I met her while my daughter and I were taking a walk in the neighborhood one day. She was a pediatric specialist of some sort, and had two beautiful girls about the same age as mine. Alma was her name, and we hit it off right away. Her mother had recently remarried and was now relocating to this strange land of Texas. Alma was here to help mom settle in. They were from Tijuana.
The first time we were asked over to supper, Alma put a plate of spaghetti and sweet peas in front of me and pinned me with her gaze.
“This is what we eat,” she said.
I understood her. Completely. Being from Mexico didn’t mean she ate ‘Mexican food’ every day. We are not our labels.
We are designed to automatically categorize things. It helps us to understand and make sense of our world. Until we carry it too far.
The purpose of a stereotype is to give us a base to work from, a place to start. Once those natural tendencies to sort and file turn into instant judgments without complete facts, we have defeated the proper function. We cheat ourselves of understanding. We judge and misjudge, neatly categorize, file, close, and shut away.
What if we stopped trying to figure out what slots people fit into? What if we recognized each other as unique individuals, here to leave a mark instead of fitting into a box?
We all wear labels. Even voluntary ones. Usually they will be misunderstood by at least a portion of the people we encounter. I could attempt to educate you, to cry foul, and tell you what my labels really mean to me; but if the door is shut no amount of yelling on my part will help you to hear.
Instead I’ll tell you this: Until you have eaten at my table for several meals you will not be able to say with any certainty that this is what we eat.