Stereotypes. That’s a dirty word nowadays. I’ve got a thing about stereotypes… but everyone’s got a thing about stereotypes, don’t they? But, you see, I don’t think my thing is anybody else’s thing, honestly. Let me tell you a short, simple story.
I’m on staff in the IT department at a university, and one of my main jobs is handling printers. I like my job: mostly I’m at a desk, but occasionally I get to go out and problem solve with the fine university faculty and staff (seriously, it’s one of the best places ever). One such day I was investigating a new printer request in the associated high school, and the boy leading me through the maze of buildings to the correct office began to inquire about my visit.
“So… what are you actually doing here?”
“Oh, I’m in IT, I’m the printer girl! I work on printers all across campus.”
“But…. you’re blonde?”
“I mean, at least you’re carrying an iPad”
“I mean… you don’t… the iPad… helps… I guess your glasses…huh.”
After that brief exchange, conversation fizzled out. Yeah, buddy. You go and shut that stereotypin’ mouth and think about what you’ve done. Seriously, who taught this 16-year-old kid that blonde girls can’t work in IT? I’ll tell you who: nobody, and everybody. I’m fairly certain nobody looked him in the eyes one day and said, “Son, let me tell you a thing. Blonde girls work in libraries or coffeeshops and geeky boys and old men work in IT. You got it?” But I am also fairly certain that most depictions of IT employees in popular media are either geeky young guys or awkward middle-aged men. So yes, stereotypes.
For a few moments I was slightly flabbergasted, because how dare someone put me in a box based on my appearance? But then a second thought peeped through. What are the two societal plateaus we all crave?
1) We want to fit in: to find our group, to feel like we belong, to be normal.
2) But we also want to be unique. To be interesting, to stick out, to not be a mindless clone or robot; we want to be special.
How do the two converge? I posit that the stereotype could be the sharpest tool in your toolbox. Think about it: whether intentionally or not, I cultivate the outward appearance of a frilly blonde Starbucks-loving basic white girl (… I mean, I do love Starbucks, not gonna lie). I fit in somewhere! I look normal! But then, my mentality and job description fits an entirely different stereotype: the geeky boy stereotype. I love my coworkers; I fit in there too! But in both circumstances, I’ve also broken the mold. I don’t act like I look; I don’t look like I act. This is not hypocritical. This is not a lie. This is not false advertising. This is being a complex human being and using stereotypes to my advantage.
Now, rather than being offended, I experience a small surge of pleasure at every shocked face that hears I work in IT. Now I assume others are more complex as well, and can steer away from uninformed labels. Now I can encourage others like me to pursue their talents and not what’s expected of them. Now I can step away from the peer pressure of looking or behaving like those around me in order to keep my “in” status.
If you’re stuck in this rut where you’re not sure where you fit in, but you’re not sure how much you want to fit in, be encouraged: God has created us to be fantastically complex and unique beings. We are fearfully and wonderfully made for a beautiful purpose. I for one am thankful that stereotypes exist. I don’t have to be bound by them.