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Generally Speaking

June 4, 2012

Generalizations are an enigma of sorts that tend to bring out the worst in many.  In super sensitive environment of, Political correctness, most people are panicked, to open their mouth for the fear they may, say something that might be misconstrued as stereotyping.  The melting pot is brimming with people but, perhaps not so much with a sense of humor.

To me generalizations are just that and no more.  Most, I am inclined to believe, are well meaning without any malcontent.  Exhortations, like all Muslims are terrorists or that people from such and such country are so stupid are generalizations spoken more out of ignorance than malcontent.  But, then we have generalizations like fat babies are so cute that leave the brow lowered.

Regardless, we generalize all the time, if not about ourselves and people around us then about other things both animate and inanimate.  It’s like going into a shop and the salesperson says to you; it’s our most popular item or most of my customers end up buying this particular model. Is the sales person generalizing? To me that is going a bit overboard!

Most generalizations like most things in life are weird and then some others are just plain funny.   For instance, a person of South Asian decent thinks Curry is the food of the Gods.  But then this banjo playing straight shooter out of West Virginia thinks curry should be used as a truth serum for the most hardened.  Reminds me of a story my political science teacher shared with the class of how during the Ethiopian famine of the 80’s. The U.S. decided to pitch in and some well meaning soul suggested that the food care package should have a little bit of coffee. Well, he generalized not thinking a hungry man chases chicken not coffee. Many Ethiopians had to be hospitalized because they ate the coffee thinking yes it tastes nasty but must be good for us following the adage our mothers tell us eat it its nasty but it’s good for you.

People generalize sometimes to be friendly or perhaps to sound Worldly. A few years back I had the misfortune of stepping into a 7-11 store for a cold soda on a hot day. The clerk behind the counter after several questions that bordered on personal information and upon discovering that I was from Pakistan exclaimed she knew that Pakistan was 40 miles South of Vermont. I have not a clue what is actually 40 miles south of Vermont, perhaps a small town that named itself after Pakistan. After all there are towns named after certain countries, Like Germantown 10 miles North of where I live.  But I know I walked away from that conversation with a sense of haste and purpose.

Sometimes our vocabulary fails us and ignorance lends to generalization. Consider the case of the white complexioned people calling anyone not white as “colored”. Now, common sense would have you believe that someone calling another colored must do so because they perceive themselves as being colorless or even without color. I am no expert but I believe White is a certified color. If anything I believe black is not considered a color. The people who use this phrase generally do so not to spite or be mean or rude as a matter of fact many black folks refer to themselves as being colored. Personally I believe there is nothing wrong with it. I consider it a compliment to be referred to as a person of and or with color.

Certain, cultural generalizations can actually be very funny. Consider this incident where a person of South Asian descent upon entering an Indian restaurant here in the U.S., joyfully exclaimed to a friend wow look at all the foreigners, by foreigners he was referring to the White Americans sitting in the restaurant.  In this case he was generalizing by labeling all people of the White complexion as foreigners and sadly even in their own homeland. In South Asia when you see a White person you immediately assume is a foreigner, while Foreigners of the tan complexion never have their nationality questioned.  

Another, generalization that borders on stereo typing is when most of us when referring to someone being an American usually think of White people.  This is certifiably a worldwide phenomenon not limited to any particular region. Throughout, Africa and even in Latin American countries people have similar perceptions. For instance, a friend was telling me this story about a man in some African country walked in to a US embassy and when asked to approach the Window for help by a Black American Officer immediately retorted he wished to speak only to an American. The Lady Officer, annoyed yet keeping her wit and her mannerisms about her, lowered the blind only to turn right around, lifted the blind and exclaimed. How can I help you sir? The man in turn replied again yes but I want to see an American. To make a long story short he all along assumed that anyone other than a White person could not be an American.  Pretty much the same scenario when I travel abroad people look at me with doubt when I tell them that I am an American. Suggesting, perhaps really but where are you originally from?

Generalizations based upon nationality and name is common. I have come across people (though only in the US) who upon hearing my name would immediately ask me if I know such and such by a similar sounding (basically Arabic) name. Suggesting, that Pakistan is a small village of 200 million people where everyone knows everyone else. It would be nice however, the sheer numbers discourage.  I can’t even begin to mention how many people I have met who think Pakistani’s favorite mode of transportation is camels. I took full advantage of this generalization one time when I had to ask for leave to go to Pakistan and got it extended by a week for camel rides to and from the airport.

So generalizations are not really a bad thing generally speaking.

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