I am suffocating.
Four walls surround me, and a closed lid prevents my escape. Painted
on the outside of one wall is the word “white.” Another
wall reads “female,” another “middle-class” and
the last, “suburban.” On the outside of the lid is a
label listing the stereotypes associated with white, middle-class,
suburban females. This is just so you know what to expect when you
lift that lid and peer into the box that you’ve put me in.
This is just so you can decide how much of a threat I pose to your
That is, if you’re not suffocating over there in your own box.
But chances are good that you’re finding it difficult to breathe,
There are lots of boxes. Whether you’re a black man, a lesbian,
a Mexican immigrant, a Pakistani woman or a white Californian, certain
characteristics will be attributed to you based on the pigment in your
skin, how you dress, who your partner is, what religion you believe in,
where you’re from and how much money you make. These boxes are
not made of steel or cardboard, but constructed of ignorance and laziness.
Most people are too afraid and too lazy to take the time to learn about
others’ individuality. So they fall back on easy labels and the
accompanying stereotypes to avoid shattering their comfortable perception
of the world.
In other words, there’s an awful lot of suffocation going on.
I was young when I learned about the damage these boxes cause. A woman,
Berta, and her husband, Pablo, had moved from Nicaragua to the United
States after fleeing the Nicaraguan government. Berta took a job babysitting
my sister and me, and she did so for eight years. Through the years,
I saw how they struggled to establish themselves in an intolerant country
and how they fought so hard to gain citizenship. Pablo never learned
English, making it difficult for him to maintain a job. When we visited
them at their home, I sensed that something about their neighborhood
differed from mine. But I was never afraid because my experiences with
them dispelled the stereotypes I may have otherwise developed. They were
two of the kindest people in my life.
More importantly, I discovered how remarkable it is to tear these boxes
to shreds. I learned Spanish, I danced to Latino music and I snacked
on fried plantains. I learned about the history and government of Nicaragua,
and I listened to stories from Berta’s childhood. Any fear I had
was replaced by the belief that everyone is different and these differences
should be celebrated. Today my closest friends are from Pakistan, Nigeria,
or are Asian-American, black or white. Some are atheist, agnostic, Muslim,
Jewish, Christian, straight or bisexual. Some are tall, short, brunette,
blonde, blue-eyed or brown-eyed. These labels don’t define the
individual – his or her unique qualities do.
But like most people, I still have a lot to learn. On a social level,
there are at least two ways to tackle the ignorance upon which almost
every conflict in the world is based. The first is through the media.
at an integrated and diverse community in Milwaukee, one of the most
segregated cities in the nation. This means looking at the history of
the Hmong as they struggle to find a place in an intolerant society.
This means exploring the creative ways in which the disabled are overcoming
stereotypes. And this means investigating the opinions of a bill that
would limit the expression of love between two people because they are
of the same sex. Curb presents these stories after drawing on the expertise
of a diverse range of sources, giving a voice to the voiceless and providing
new insight into Wisconsin’s social and political issues.
The second way to dispel stereotypes is through community leaders and
civically engaged citizens like you. There are several ways that you
can remove the lids of many boxes. You can continue to get involved in
community organizations that work to increase respect and understanding
between people. You can support artistic endeavors that celebrate cultural
differences. And you can share your own individual story while also listening
to those of others.
These efforts will help us all breathe.
Lindsay Renick Mayer