Stereotypes Written Over with Faces

January 4, 2011
Cheryl Woelk |

Last summer, we were camping at Crabtree Falls in North Carolina. It was a new experience for us. We'd been through the state before, but had never spent a night and had never tented in that area before.

One night, after a relaxing evening around the campfire, I was peacefully dreaming, curled up in my sleeping bag. Suddenly, a strange sound broke the stillness and woke me from sleep. In half-conscious confusion, I tried to identify the source of the sound. An animal? But I couldn't tell what kind.

I listened again. A whopping sound repeated three or four times, and then trickled off into more of a whirling, sometimes fading with echoes, sometimes falling into a choking cough. The animal repeated its call as it got closer and closer. Once, it screeched very loudly right next to our tent! Then I heard it further away, and quiet, and then I slowly fell back asleep.

The sound was something completely new and I couldn't place it. I wondered if it might be dangerous but I didn't even have enough information to label it safe or unsafe. I decided not be afraid and just enjoy the newness of the sounds around our tent.

In the morning I remembered and listened again for the sound. I couldn't hear anything like it. So it was a night creature? A bird perhaps? That came out only at night?... Of course! An owl! The familiarity hit me. Although I'd heard of owls before, I realized I had never actually heard one in the night. I had a stereotype of the "who" call from movies and books, and could not imagine the strange and wonderful whirliness of sound I heard that night, which must have been common nighttime noise for anyone growing up in North Carolina.

Oh the fun of camping in a new climate! I remember camping in South Korea and how it felt so unfamiliar and strange at first. Now when I think of the mountains, rocks, rivers, and oceans, it's home. All the mountains are trees and creatures that I know and can group, label, and sort into appropriate categories. The shift between unfamiliar and home can happen so fast, but it takes direct contact within a positive setting. I need to experience it first hand, not through books or internet, and be able to put my finger on things, understand them, in order for the "home" feeling to appear.

People too, I think.  It's easy and more than natural to group people into human kinds. The labels chosen are shaped by society and then shape society in return. Why do humans do this? Is it, as one book suggested, because we can only keep 150 individuals in our minds at one time and if we group people, we can include more?

In any case, humans stereotype and label people even before we know them. Just as with my experience of the owl, I have expectations of certain people I have never met simply because of the group in which I've placed them. When we finally meet in person, I'm shocked and amazed at the difference of reality and my assumptions. I may not even recognize the labels I had previously held!

I had certain stereotypes about people in the southern region of the United States too. Our trip over the summer and experiences in Harrisonburg, Virginia, however, have allowed me to meet people face-to-face and give me names and situations to replace the stereotypes. Just as my category for owls was redefined by my camping experience, my grouping of people has transformed because of the friends I have met and gotten to know from this area.

I will never think of North Carolina the same way again.


Author Name: 
Cheryl Woelk
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