“Good girls don’t…”
We’re all familiar with the stereotypes, and the social conditioning that creates and reinforces the behaviors that make up those stereotypes. They’re not limited to gender roles, though, and today I’m thinking about how similar types of stereotypes and conditioning can affect other groups, sometimes subjecting individuals to even more outside forces to conform to specific images when they get them from more than one direction. It’s close to home, because I and others who look like me are grappling a lot right now with this one, which is a lot like what we are familiar with as women, but multiplied by our racial and cultural backgrounds:
“Asian women are quiet, shy, passive, and submissive.”
It’s not that all of us are seen this way or that we all accept that lens on us, but the view remains and is a factor for many of us. Acknowledging that these stereotypes exist and may affect us is important for many reasons, including that they are dangerous to us in two ways.
They make us more likely to be targeted. Predators look for easy prey, and one of the ways they make their snap judgments is to use generalizations that they deem rather more likely than not to be true. It’s not only the most evil and violent criminals either, but also folks who are interested in more minor harassment and other crimes, and who believe they will get away with those antics because they don’t believe their targets will fight back. It’s undeniable that many who are willing to cross that line into hurting other people aren’t interested in trying their luck against those they perceive to be stronger, more able, more cared about by society. Misogynistic? Racist? Perhaps, but just like we can’t wish all of the bad guys in the world away, we can’t wish away the mindsets and attitudes that make them choose one victim over another, or choose to victimize at all. There is work we can do in that area, but it is long-term and ultimately, we can only control ourselves. From the perspective of trying to remain safe today, it is enough to know that who we appear to be can be a factor working against us.
They can make it harder for us to resist. When we have a lifetime of conditioning that says we should be nice, that we shouldn’t make waves, that we should turn the other cheek…it’s hard to break that so that we can rudely turn away someone approaching us with potentially ill intent, so that we can make all of the noise and ruckus needed to discourage a harasser, so that we can actively and violently fight off an attacker. The pressure to conform can be subtle, insidious, and difficult to escape. Even when we have shifted it in some areas of our lives, we may not yet have been able to in others or we may revert back in times of extreme stress – like when someone is trying to hurt you right here, right now. For small insults or those that are non-physical, we can often brush off or internalize our hurt and regret at not speaking up, to deal with it another day, but when the attacks are larger, more violent, our conditioned inability to respond can lead to our deaths.
I wish I could tell you that you can simply decide one day to change. Unfortunately, it’s rarely that easy. There is a lot of internal work that’s necessary, and it can take years or longer to move past the subconscious blocks you have against the actions that may be necessary to defend yourself. It’s scary work to become so different from who you see yourself as and who the world sees you as. Each step can be fraught with anxiety as we try on new behavior patterns and habits, full of worry that we might no longer recognize ourselves and that others will reject us when we no longer fit the box they want us to fit into. There is nothing that feels safe about the process of leaving the familiar, no matter how much it may be necessary to gain true safety from other threats. It’s hard, and requires courage and determination. It’s not impossible.
And you need not be hopeless or helpless as you do that work. You can learn self-defense skills while you are working on overcoming your psychological barriers to actually putting them to use. The very process of doing so may be what it takes for you to push past the conditioning against speaking out, against quietly accepting your fate when someone tries to harm you. Practicing the actions can make them more possible in your moment of need because they are not new to you, because the idea of employing them is no longer novel. Spending time among people who accept you when you talk about and train using those strategies that seem so unnatural to you can help you believe that they are okay for you to embrace after all.
You can also discover ways of defending yourself that harmonize with those core values you do not want to lose. Not all of the elements of a stereotype are necessarily or absolutely bad; you may simply need to adjust how you can make those behaviors and characteristics work with your goals of staying safe. If it is more authentic to you to draw your boundaries against encroachers in polite language, you don’t have to use curse words. Instead, pay more attention to the clarity and tone of your language. If you cannot see yourself dealing death on another human being even if they are trying to kill you, then you don’t have to decide to carry a gun or knife. You can instead choose to use other methods, like pepper spray or a disorientingly bright flashlight.
It can be a bit of an uphill slog, to work against the way the world sees us and the way they have caused us to see ourselves. We fight it when it comes to how we see our bodies and our faces, to how we accept our culture and our place within it and within where else we are today. We struggle against it to decide we are able and worthy to defend ourselves. But we can win those battles, become who we want to be rather than who we are required to be.