Published in the Delaware County Daily Times Sunday, July 19, 2020
By Joseph Batory, Times Columnist
“I often wonder why the whole world is so prone to generalize…..so seldom if ever true, and usually utterly inaccurate.” — Agatha Christie
I first met a Ukrainian heritage neighbor who lived near me in Philadelphia about a decade ago. We formed a business relationship. That is because she made the most delicious pierogies (potato dumplings) every week and I would buy a few dozen regularly.
For many months, I just picked up her freshly made pierogies and paid this nice quiet older lady what was required. But then one day, her daughter who was visiting told me that her mother had been a long-term prisoner of the Nazis in WW II.
I was fascinated and curious, and eventually, I was able to get my new Ukrainian friend to “open up” about her prisoner experience. She explained that at 15 years of age she was taken from the Ukraine and put into forced labor on a farm run by the Nazis in Germany. She told me about being fed the same food as the pigs on the farm and about her fear that she would be raped so she hardly ever slept and shrunk to only 75 pounds. It was a horror story that few of us can imagine. But she was finally rescued and came to America, was married, and raised a family.
Now that I knew her history, I dared to ask this 85-year-old woman “What she thought of Germans?” It was a loaded question. But I never got the answer I expected.
Instead, she surprised me with this lecture: Young man, whatever you thought I might say, I will not say. I will tell you from my lengthy life experience that there is good and bad in all people…and that none of us should ever overgeneralize or stereotype all the members of any group. In your life, you should never say: This is the way they are all…or They are all like that.
Indeed, too many of us are too quick these days to categorize groups and create negative conclusions using overgeneralized assumptions and insufficient evidence to assign universal traits to all members of a group.
- Police are all racists who lean toward violence!
- Inner-city poor people are all just looking for a chance to riot and loot!
- Immigrants are all thugs and criminals.
- Politicians are all crooked!
- Muslims are all terrorists!
Statements like the ones above have become commonplace in our nation today… and each of them is a stereotype.
Unfortunately, USA history has been filled with similar ill-founded pronouncements:
Send them back to where they came from. Irish immigrants escaping to the USA from the famine and British oppression of Ireland were stereotyped as criminals and rapists. These Irish immigrants were demeaned and denied work. They were beaten and relegated to ghettos. Their churches were burned.
They are all criminals and thieves. This was the unwelcome view of too many Americans regarding Italian immigrants from 1890-1920. Discrimination against these immigrants was commonplace and there were numerous instances of “lynching” Italian immigrants across our nation.
These people are all inferior and from a strange culture and not worthy to become Americans. Chinese immigrants, beginning in the latter half of the 19th century, were brutally degraded and excluded from the mainstream for decades. In fact, the USA’s Chinese exclusion laws were not repealed until 1942.
In summary, overgeneralizations lead nowhere except down a pathway of discrimination. All of us need to step back with some intellectual caution and not buy in to stereotypes as well as blanket statements that lump all people in any group similarly.
Prominent Nigerian author Chimaamanda Adichie offers this eloquent summary: The problem with stereotypes is ….that they make one story become the only story!
The wisdom of my heroic and wise Ukrainian friend could not be more relevant in these turbulent times!
Joseph Batory has been widely published in politics, education, history, and culture.