As a social psychology student at the University, I’ve dedicated myself to learning a lot about race and class in the United States and how to combat the stereotypes that shape our society. But I had a chance this May, thanks to grants from the University, to put my ivory tower learning to the test when I became a one-woman, 20-something ambassador for the U.S. to a group of international volunteers in South Africa. I went there to teach kids in the Nomzamo Township, but it turned out I had a lot to teach my fellow English, Irish, Canadian, Swedish and Australian volunteers and myself.
“Oh you’re American?” they said in a tone laden with assumptions when I opened my mouth for the first time. Previous travels with my family had prepared me for the reactions people have toward Americans abroad but since I was alone on this journey, this was the first time I had ever felt solely responsible for representing an entire nation. I took less food in an attempt to not seem greedy, spoke quieter in an attempt to not seem boisterous and spelled words the British way in an attempt to not seem uneducated. I was so focused on trying to prove that my country was not all bad that I lost sight of who I was. I had become the token American, and it was when I came to this realization that I began to connect the theories I’m learning in college with actual practice out in the world. I turned my discomfort into dialogue.
For example, while on dinner duty with a fellow volunteer from Southern England, I asked her what she thought of America. She said she thought most of it was great but that all the Southern people are dumb. I pushed her to consider what would make a whole group of people seem unintelligent and what she actually knew about those states south of the Mason Dixon.
With another British volunteer, we jokingly asked one of our South African students, “Who do you like better — the U.S. or England?” The child promptly responded, “USA! England messed up our country.” This led to a powerful discussion about what the student knew about history and the inherited guilt the British volunteer felt about that history even though he obviously had nothing to do with the colonization of South Africa.
These and many other experiences taught me in a way books and lectures couldn’t about how stereotypes work both ways when we let ourselves take the easy road and buy into them rather than do the hard work of finding out who we really are. These ideas of stereotypes are not necessarily new to me. As a facilitator and research assistant with the Program on Intergroup Relations I have thoroughly delved into how my social identities affect my life, and I find myself constantly scrutinizing the role social identities play in our society and on our campus.
What was different about this experience was the particular social identity that was brought to my attention: my nationality. I realized I had spent thoroughly less time thinking about my nationality as a social identity. I felt like I was caught between being the evil, war-obsessed American to my fellow volunteers and the perfect, nothing-is-ever-wrong-with-my-nation American to the South Africans.
This experience was a reminder that until we step out of our comfort zones and talk with people who are different than us, we are unable to understand who we and others really are. How can we as University students learn about nationality when most of us are American citizens? I challenge us, myself included, to make more of an effort to get to know and talk with students from other countries. Talk about the stereotypes that face us abroad and the stereotypes that face University students who are not originally from the U.S.
The volunteer from England who thought all Southern people were dumb recently wrote on my Facebook wall that she had stopped stereotyping the South. I’m not sure if her comments would ever have hurt my fellow Americans, but her Facebook post is still a small victory over ignorance.
Nora Stephens can be reached at email@example.com.