Annie is a Caucasian friend and colleague at work. I am African and we have been working together for three years and have personally invited her to several African parties. For her experiences at those parties, I do not know, all I know is that, she always tells me she enjoyed the African food and enjoyed talking to the Africans she met at the parties I invited her to. She has been telling me about her only brother who lives in West Virginia and always tells me she would be pleased for me to meet her brother. This is because; according to her she has been telling the brother how nice I have been to her since she joined the company I work for.
The opportunity came for me to meet the brother when his 50th birthday party was scheduled for December, 2009 in Martinsburg, West Virginia. When Annie handed the invitation to me at work, I told one of my colleagues at work about the party. He advised me not to attend because it might be a white -only party based on what he knows about Martinsburg, West Virginia. He was emphatic and told me, although he is Caucasian, he will not attend such a party.
The party took place at Annie’s brother’s house in Martinsburg, West Virginia. The brother is a biker and it was attended by several members of his bike club. The house was full of people when we arrived at 8:30 pm, immediately we entered the door; I looked around me for several minutes and did not see a single person of color. I immediately began feeling insecure. Annie was busy greeting friends and family members. I was following her for the introductions. She introduced me to the brother, the mother, and some of her sisters. I did not remember how many because I was honestly feeling insecure already. This is because, although I was introduced to the brother, his body language did not give me any indication that I was welcomed to the party. He jokingly told me to feel at home and talk to everybody. Most of the people at the party were drinking and smoking heavily. I immediately realized I do not belong there.
I started looking around if I could find someone to talk to. I began smiling to almost everyone at the party and making friendly gestures but to no avail. I walked to Annie and told her, how I felt and wanted to leave the party. She told the brother, who came to talk to me for some minutes trying to make me feel at home, by telling me about his love for bikes and how some people have the erroneous impression that bikers are gang members and racists. I only listened and responded only when he asked me specific questions. I was a little relieved during the conversation, after all, he is the host of the party and if he feels at home with me, why should I bother about the attendants. According to an article I read in the Harvard Business Review “Tempered Radicals’ written by Debra Meyerson, for a person to feel or be treated different, he or she must be different from something. This was exactly how I felt. I was different by race, interests and behavior. All the party attendants were smoking and talking about bikes. None of the conversational topics was of interest to me.
Moreover, I feel very uncomfortable when people smoke around me. I found myself in a bad situation because I did not use my car for the trip. I decided to let my friend Annie know, I am not enjoying the party and that I want to leave, but Annie has attended several African parties with me and felt very much at home anytime she attends my parties. I decided to stay and pretend I am not aware of the happenings around me, and that worked for me for the three hours that I stayed at the party. This is what W.E.B. DuBois termed the double consciousness I decided to engage in conversations with anyone I find and that worked for me. I started conversation with one of the bikers called Ken, who was an ex-marine and had visited Africa providing security for former President Clinton on his tour of Africa.
Ken provided the source of conversation that made me felt at ease. He began by telling me how some of the bikers behave and why they put up such behaviors. I found Ken an interesting person to talk to. We talked about soccer, Africa, especially his experiences in Ghana and how he always wanted to visit Ghana and interact with the people he met whilst there.
The party thought me several lessons. Firstly, I realized that, it is not good to stereotype people. When I arrived at the party and greeted the few people at the entrance, I concluded that all the attendants at the party are mean. This actually prevented me from interacting positively with them. It is not good to belief in something and expect other people to conform to those beliefs. Although, it is not easy to wipe out prejudice and erroneous stereotyping, it is sometimes really unnecessary. According to Snyder (1982), “when people first meet others they cannot help noticing certain highly visible and distinctive characteristics: sex, race, physical appearance, and the like”. Snyder continues that “despite people’s best intentions, their initial impressions of others are shaped by their assumptions about such characters”.
Moreover, it feels really uncomfortable to be different in an environment you are not familiar with. I found most of the attendants wearing similar uniforms and have tattoos on their body. They were wearing similar vests with similar inscriptions of the bike club on them, and almost all of them were smoking cigars and drinking heavily. They also appear masculine and there were only few women at the party. These made me really uncomfortable and I remembered the advice from one of my colleagues at work not to attend the party. I felt left out until I met Ken.
Furthermore, I felt out of place due to the music, physical appearance, behavioral styles, and the habits of the party attendants. The music was loud and the dancing appears very physical to me. According to Johnson, in his article Privilege, Power, and Difference “People’s perceptions are difficult to control, however they tend to assume that they can identify characteristics such as race and gender simply by looking at someone.”Johnson continues by saying sometimes these impressions are based on blanket assumptions. I made a generalization about everyone who was at the party until, I met Ken who was nice to me and made me feel at home. He introduced me to the president of the bike club and jokingly said, “I might be the first black person in their club”.
In conclusion, differences make people make hasty generalizations about people. It is always better not to stereotype people based on information available to you. Stereotyping people can cause hate. According to Martin Luther King Jr., hate is like an unchecked cancer; it corrodes personality and eats away its vital unity. It can destroy one’s sense of values and objectivity. It can also cause you to describe the beautiful as ugly and the ugly as beautiful, and to confuse the true with the false and the false with the true.