Storytelling Project Rethinks Stereotypes
“reTyped” is a growing collection of stories and portraits to get people re-thinking stereotypes. An Alexandria-based writer teamed up with a Richmond artist for the project, which they hope sparks dialogue and understanding. Catherine Komp has more for Virginia Currents.
At a Richmond coffee shop, Janelle Rucker sits down with Stephen Jenkins, CEO of Tekton Builders. She turns on her recorder and poses a question that will spark an hour of conversation.
Janelle Rucker: What stereotype bothers you the most?
He’s troubled by several stereotypes: that black people are lazy and don’t want to work. That black men don’t want to be fathers. That living in a black body means you are often seen as a threat.
Stephen Jenkins: There’s a total new kind of segregation, whether it’s a mall or me going in a Tiffany’s and someone saying “You know, that’s really expensive,” or me approaching a shop and a woman running to the door to lock it.
Jenkins’ experiences and reflections will become part of reTyped, a storytelling project Rucker launched a few years ago. She says the narratives send the message that we are stories, not stereotypes.
Janelle Rucker: So you can see somebody and assume something but really you don't know them and probably shouldn't judge them until you know their story.
Each reTyped narrative is accompanied by a sketch of the interviewee by Richmond architect and artist David Marion.
David Marion: I’ve experienced what it feels to be racially. I come from an area where racism was rampant and I’ve kind of experienced all this stuff firsthand, I had a personal connection, so I was like, yeah, most definitely, I have to be involved in this project. It means so much to me and I know so many people going through it now. My family is still out in South Carolina, they’re still going through it and we see what’s going on in the news today and how all this is impacting the youth, the next generation, just everyone.
For the profile of 32 year old Beverly G, Marion’s sketch shows a big smile, sparkling eyes and full black curls. Beverly wants to upend the stereotype that victims are weak. She was in an abusive relationship and eventually broke free.
“It’s easy to confuse inaction with complacency, and idleness with irresolution,” wrote Beverly in her reTyped profile. “I was not passive, I was surviving. Waiting for the right moment to leave an abuser is an incredibly transgressive act.”
Rucker: My favorite thing about hers is, you can’t be weak to leave. Leaving, getting up and leaving, she did that by herself, she had to get out of there and that took strength from her and I think a lot of people don’t look at it that way.
reTyped stories examine all sorts of stereotypes: that people of color aren’t educated, that young, single moms aren’t invested in their children’s future, that black women don’t care about their health. By including details of subjects’ hopes, goals and accomplishments, Rucker puts a spotlight on their complexity. Reading the profiles, one sees differences and similarities.
Rucker: When you’re comfortable in knowing the fact that you’ll be accepted no matter who you are, I think that people flourish that way. So for us to be our best selves, we need people not to judge us.
Marion: I do hope that it’s going to give people the opportunity to embrace themselves flaws and all and give them the confidence that they need to know that this is who you are and you should be accepted no matter what.
The team behind reTyped has their own experiences with being stereotyped.
Rucker: Between being a woman and a black woman and being a young black woman, in the workplace there are a lot of stereotypes.
Rucker says one of the worst is the “angry black woman.”
Rucker: Because it’s like we can’t get upset at all. I mean nobody should be mad at work and throwing a tantrum, but it’s okay to not agree with something and that’s fine and you can keep moving forward. But I think some people are like, “I didn’t mean to upset you,” and I’m like, “I’m not upset, I just don’t think that’s a good idea.”
David Marion has experienced a range of stereotypes. Some are fairly harmless, like when people assume he must be good at basketball. But in the workplace and professional world, people have questioned his abilities and expertise. He’s been racially profiled by police. Women have held their purses tighter when he walked by.
Marion: I can go on and on and on. But you know it affects me and it makes me feel that I have to work a lot harder to not give off a certain perception, which it shouldn't be that way but I'm at peace with the fact that it is. And hopefully things will change but if not, I'm going to keep on doing what I'm going to do. I’m unapologetically black, not apologizing for it, I am who I am.
Stereotypes, discrimination and racism can overlap. It can lead to policies and actions that cause psychological, physical and economic harm. For some, it’s a life or death situation. Others, might not get hired or promoted. Some might question their abilities and self-worth. Think of the little girl, says Rucker, who’s told math is for boys.
Rucker: What if she wanted to be a mathematician? What if she wanted to be in one of these positions or industries that she could make a lot of money or be very successful in but you encouraged her more in home ec or in English or whatever. As David said earlier, people take those things in and take those things on. So if you're telling me math if for boys and I’m in the third grade, then I'm always going to think that math is for boys and it's something that I can't do. So very early on you’re altering that child's path and setting them up for all types of things in different areas of their life.
There’s also “fun” stereotypes, says Rucker. Comedians of different races, genders, ethnicities and sexual orientations use them for satire. They’ve been folded into cultural games like Black Card Revoked and blogs like Stuff White People Like. There’s lists of stereotypes about cities, and sororities and fraternities. But Rucker cautions that with the wrong audience, “fun” stereotypes might offend or reinforce a bias.
Rucker: It’s hard. Going through this, I’m realizing, I still stereotype.
Whether consciously or not, we all stereotype. Rucker says she stops and asks herself why she had those thoughts and are they fair.
Rucker: Somebody I interviewed before said that you know that everybody stereotypes and it's not okay, but it's fine as long as you don't put action behind it. So if I said, “Oh yeah, it’s because they’re whatever…” and then I treat them a different way based on that, that’s when it’s not okay, when you’re putting action behind the stereotype. That’s when it gets harmful.
Rucker and Marion want reTyped to be a project that engages people, helps them understand other cultures and experiences, and improves the way we communicate.
Rucker: I hope that reTyped challenges People's thinking a little bit.
Marion: I hope it educates, I hope it can give people a different perspective, a different view.
Rucker: I hope it that it encourages people to be a little more open-minded.
Marion: And help people to not be so quick to judge.
Rucker: And I just hope that it becomes this place where people can either go personally to address some of the biases that they have, if they’re too embarrassed or don't want to have a conversation, but I also hope that it becomes a conversation starter, that it begins dialogue.
Marion: I hope that retype is a platform that makes people feel comfortable in their own skin also, I hope that makes you don't have to alter your personality or who you are.
Rucker and Marion also want the project to be valuable to young people. The next goal is developing curriculum that combines the history and impacts of stereotypes while developing narrative writing skills. For Virginia Currents, I’m Catherine Komp, WCVE News.