I am currently enrolled in an English class where we consistently discuss literature and social change. A piece of literature that was recently discussed was Rita Mae Brown’s “Rubyfruit Jungle” (1973), and while reading, my classmates and I were asked to keep in mind the stereotypes presented throughout the novel. We ran into stereotypes such as these: “Only boys can be doctors … All girls look like that … Lesbians look like men and are ugly … Lesbians are boyish and athletic.” These and many other stereotypes in the book surround the idea that individuals should take on a certain role in society and look a certain way. I’ve always wondered what gave people the right, and the nerve, to assign “roles” that say how others should act or what they should look like. What happens when people don’t play their “roles” properly? But who makes these rules anyway?
Sunday night, I worked my regular shift in the dining hall, and while working, I spoke with one of the chefs to help pass the time when customers were not in line for food. Upon talking to him, a student worker, Carlton, came to the station to deliver clean dishes. Carlton lingered for a minute, making a comical statement to us, and before leaving, the chef requested his name.
“Carlton,” he responded, “but not like the ‘Fresh Prince of Bel-Air.’”
I laughed instantly, registering that Carlton did share the name of a well-known character from the show. While laughing, I heard the chef and Carlton sustain the conversation. Carlton delivered an explanation, stating that people typically learn his name and urge him to do the “Carlton dance.” Shortly after Carlton left, the chef and I ended our laughter, then he shocked me with an unexpected remark.
“He doesn’t look like a Carlton, maybe a Deandre or a Jackson.”
What? I hoped I’d heard him wrong, hoped that his statement wasn’t meant to sound as prejudiced as it had. What made Carlton not “look” like a Carlton?
“It’s just that Carlton sounds so proper and preppy,” he continued.
The sentence sounded like it was missing a “but.” What? Carlton sounds so proper and preppy, but Carlton doesn’t “look” proper and preppy?
I attempted to tune him out, fearing that he would say something else that I didn’t like. I tried focusing on my own thoughts concerning what I heard but could still hear his voice.
“You don’t meet many Carltons … since he’s Black with tattoos, one could assume that he’s from the hood.”
According to the chef, the name “Carlton” is preppy. The term “preppy” carries certain connotations, such as expensive, upper-middle class and nice clothes. What was Carlton’s “role” in society? A non-preppy, Black man with tattoos from the hood? Carlton may not look “preppy,” but nothing about him screams that he isn’t. What if he doesn’t play his “role” properly? What if he comes from a wealthy family and a nice neighborhood? What if he attended a prep school that led him to “Go Blue” here at the University? Neither Carlton’s name nor race speaks to who he is as a person or where he’s from.
At this point, I let the chef talk to himself for the remainder of the night. I busied myself with imaginary work to avoid any further conversation. My best friend worked the same shift but was placed at a different station for the duration of the shift. This bothered me. This time I needed to talk to her about how ignorant the chef was and how annoyed I was by the whole situation. I needed to get these aggravated feelings off my chest. When 10 o’clock hit, my best friend and I clocked out, and when we started our walk home, I began ranting. I went on and on about what I experienced at work and the chef’s racist and preconceived notions of Carlton.
My conversation with her led me to think about my English class and our various discussions on racism, sexism, classism, etc. and the normative. Norms shape for us what’s normal, and this notion comes from majority group in society. In the United States, the dominant group is white. The problem arises when the belief of groups of majority/dominant is seen as normal or right. Unfortunately, we live in a culture where majority rules.
If Carlton were not a Black male with tattoos, would he have been judged by his name and skin color? What if he were not male at all, would this person still be from the hood? Is it a normal assumption that Black people with body ink only possess non-preppy names and are from the hood?
What happens when people don’t play their “roles” properly? Do the members of society who create these rules and roles become shocked?
I couldn’t agree more with the main character in “Rubyfruit Jungle” when stating, “Why does everyone have to put you in a box and nail the lid on it?” That’s exactly what the chef did to Carlton; he used small-minded thinking to compartmentalize him as a non-preppy, Black man with tattoos from the hood. Carlton should be viewed on the basis of his character versus the “roles.” I wonder if the chef thought, for a fraction of a second, that his initial thoughts of Carlton were incorrect. Instead of viewing Carlton on the basis of his character after speaking with him briefly, he used society’s roles to define him and dictate his behavior. The chef contributes to the majority group, and until they speak against the use of labels and roles to define people, we will continuously live in a society full of poor stereotypes and misconstrued norms. As you go about your daily routines, think of your “role” in society. Think of the “norms” and who created them.
Sierra Brown can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.