The whole truth isn't black and white

Gloria Towle-Hilt was talking enthusiastically about helping an elderly woman fix her house.

“Every morning, she met us with muffins,” Towle-Hilt said.

When the work crew of young Christian volunteers left, they gave her a hanging mobile, a wind chime made of six butterflies. “We each signed one, and she said, ‘I will listen to these butterflies and remember you.’ The kids were so filled with love,” Towle-Hilt said.

She is part of a group planning a work camp for next summer, to be housed at Guilderland High School. (See related story.)

The program, Towle-Hilt went on, “breaks down a lot of stereotypes.” Kids from affluent, suburban neighborhoods get to know the poor and elderly.

And it works both ways. “A lot of these people have in their heads what a teenager is.” It is not a pretty picture. “By the end,” Towle-Hilt said of the work week, “they’re best friends.”

Stereotypes interest us. Our newsroom is over a print shop; we can smell the ink as we write this. A stereotype is a printing plate; it is used to duplicate the original — again and again and again, always the same. The term was coined at the end of the 18th Century from two Greek words: “typos” meaning impression, and “stereos” meaning firm.

It wasn’t until the 20th Century, though, that Walter Lippmann gave “stereotype” its modern meaning. In his book, Public Opinion, Lippmann wrote of the limitations people face in understanding their cultural and sociopolitical environments.

“The real environment is altogether too big, too complex, and too fleeting for direct acquaintance,” he wrote. People simplify by categorizing or stereotyping others; each person creates his or her own environment.

So, Lippmann wrote, people “live in the same world, but think and feel in different ones.”

Hence, seeing through stereotypes subjects us to partial truths.

The Nigerian writer Chinua Achebe put it powerfully and well: “The whole idea of a stereotype is to simplify,” he said. “Instead of going through the problem of all this great diversity — that it’s this or maybe that — you have just one large statement; it is this.”

We loved Achebe’s novel, Things Fall Apart, because of the way he described the lost Ibo culture; he made us see its complexities — its strengths and drawbacks — as the Christian missionaries were causing it to unravel.

It is only when we see the many layers that make up real people that we can know and love them. Such understanding is difficult to come by. It is far easier to stick with our own kind and to see others as stamped out, as if from a printing press.

Once we see them that way, as two-dimensional copies, rather than as flesh-and-blood originals, we’re just a step away from treating them as less than human, less than ourselves.

We wondered if that might have been what Dr. André Thomas meant when he told us how, in his youth, he hated spirituals. He integrated his junior high school in Witchita, Kansas and found a place where race didn’t matter — the choir.

But he hated spirituals because, he said, “They provided opportunity for white people to make fun of black people.” To stereotype.

But Thomas was awakened by Jester Hairston who wanted to make his mark in folk songs because his grandparents were slaves, and he wanted to keep that music alive.

Thomas described himself before he met Hairston as “an obnoxious little boy embarrassed of his heritage.” Hairston, he said, gave him pride in his heritage. Thomas’s book has become the leading authority on the genre.

Thomas will be conducting the Guilderland High School Concert Choir at Carnegie Hall in March, and one of the songs they will sing is a spiritual Thomas arranged. They will also sing a Ghanaian folk song he arranged called “Daa Naa Se,” which roughly translates as “We Give Thanks.”

We feel sure Thomas will lead the choir, made up mostly of white students, to insights on the meaning of those songs. There will be no stereotyping. “When you teach the piece,” said Thomas, “you teach the culture.”

We’ve struggled with the evil effects of stereotyping over the last several weeks as we wrote an obituary for Robert Burns, a man well known in our village. He lived in Altamont’s first group home and was a fixture at village dances where he often continued to move to the music after everyone else had tired.

His niece graciously sent us snapshots of his life that spanned 85 years. There’s one, in black and white, of him as a young man, standing next to his mother. They stand resolutely to face the camera, his arm about her waist. “His father left the family when Uncle Bobby and my mother were young,” said his niece. Because she had so many children to care for and because Burns had special needs, she placed him in the Willowbrook State School on Staten Island.

“That was a sad chapter; it was a bad experience for him,” she said. “Life was not good at Willowbrook.”

Indeed, that institution became infamous when it was shut in the 1980s; Robert Kennedy called it a snake pit.

As a society, we were all to blame. It was easy to see the developmentally disabled as other than ourselves.  Once they were stereotyped, once they were two-dimensional, they could be pushed away.

Robert Burns’s family did not forget him. One of the snapshots, taken in August 1968 — the date is stamped on the side of the faded colored print — shows him standing with his mother and sister and her family in front of the “Willowbrook State School” sign.

The wonderful part of Burns’s story, though, comes after Willowbrook closed. Altamont wanted to establish a group home, and he was an original resident of Helderberg House. The movement that brought people with disabilities into our communities has enriched us all. They are no longer “the other” — they are part of “us.”

“The people in Altamont were good to him,” said Burns’s niece.

He was not a stereotype to be shunned; he was a person to be embraced — to dance with.

And so we sing the praises of those who have overcome stereotypes.

Good for the volunteers who will not only build decks and paint houses; they will build friendships and color our future. We support them

Good for the choir that will learn about other cultures by singing their songs, and praise to the man who will lead them.

Good for the community that welcomed those who had been outcast and that continues to be home for others who have enriched our lives.

But we must not rest on our laurels.

We must be ever vigilant in looking for the real person behind the stereotypes that still exist. It is not easy; it can be downright complex and messy. But the struggle is rich and the reward is ripe.

— Melissa Hale-Spencer

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