Seeing Through Communicated Stereotypes From The Inside Of A Taxi Cab

July 24th, 2013 | Categories: Uncategorized

In today’s guest blog, a former student narrates her experience communicating stereotypes with a taxi cab driver in New York City. In her discussion she explores the benefits these communicated stereotypes had for her and the cab driver as well as the downside to communicating them. Viewing stereotypes from this neutral perspective is difficult for many people especially in those who are invested in vilifying those who communicate stereotypes. However, by taking a neutral stance as TCS tries to do we become better equipped to understand and counteract stereotypes because we treat them as communication choices that we all make in similar ways and that we can change rather than inherent prejudice that seems rigid and impenetrable.

Taxi

I had just gotten into a cab and the driver, after glancing at me several times in his rearview mirror, asked me if I was Russian. Even though I have an Eastern European ethnic background, my mother’s roots are Latvian and my father’s are Hungarian, and I must admit my facial features do look rather “Russian.” I was born and raised in America.

I also communicated a cultural stereotype by asking him if he was from the Middle East since he was a brown-skinned man with dark features, a beard and an Arabic accent.

Since it was a Friday night, there was lots of traffic and what should have been a quick cab ride turned into a lengthy one which allowed us to have an interesting conversation where we both realized that we were each guilty of stereotyping the other, and incorrectly at that.

The positive effect that the stereotype had on the interaction was that we learned who we really are. As we shared something about ourselves, I learned that he was a hard-working, well educated immigrant from Pakistan, not from the Middle East like I had assumed, and that he was more than just a cab driver. He was not a Muslim who spoke Arabic. He spoke Punjabi and English and was a Christian. No doubt, since I have not had any personal interactions with Muslims I based my perceptions of Arabs and Muslims on what I have seen in the media. He explained to me that Arabs are people who speak Arabic and Muslims are people who practice the religion of Islam. He told me what it is like to live in Pakistan and that he has a degree in engineering and that he drives a cab in New York City so that he can help support his family back home and make enough of a living here. When he looked at me, he saw a young “Russian” woman, all dressed up for a night on the town in New York City instead of a young “American” college student out for a night of partying with her friends. The implication that I was perceived as beautiful enough to be a Russian model was flattering and not such a bad thing, I suppose. He also thought that in general Russia and all of Eastern Europe basically share the same history, culture, and language, which could not be further from the truth.

There was no negative effect the stereotype had on the interaction. However, the potential was definitely there. Our quick impressions of one another could have led to an angry exchange. He may have felt inferior, ashamed, insulted, or could have become aggressive. I could have felt insulted if in my mind Russians were perceived negatively. In this case, stereotyping did not lead to a negative outcome. The stereotyping led to an inquisitive and engaged conversation and created an opportunity for communication. The quality of the communication did not suffer because of the stereotype.

We had an interesting conversation where I got to learn about his background and he got to learn a little bit about mine. We also each realized that we both had a number of common misconceptions about each other, based on stereotypes rather than facts or firsthand knowledge. We each categorized ourselves into a social group and then overly simplified our impressions. What I remember most about the conversation is the way that stereotypes – both his and mine – were challenged. Initially, we both assumed something about each other based on looks. Through our open conversation we each saw through the stereotypes and recognized a person, a person in their own right, which no stereotype can define.

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