When I first heard of the recent mass murders in Norway, I assumed, like millions of other people worldwide, that the killer was an outsider of some kind. Upon learning that the suspect is Anders Behring Breivik, I was surprised.
I had assumed that the killer, who detonated a car bomb and opened fire on a youth camp, was an outsider because, like most people everywhere, I am a prisoner of stereotypes. How could anyone except an outsider commit such a terrible act in peaceful Norway? But the suspect is not an outsider. Instead, he is a good-looking, blond Norwegian who apparently believes that Christian Europe would be better off without Muslims.
After Breivik's identity emerged and I realized how wrong I had been, I did some soul searching. As a black male in the United States, I am intimately familiar with the complexities of stereotypes, the fixed or conventional notions or conceptions about a person or a group, especially a group.
Stereotypes may convey the positive or the negative. Most, if not all, successful black people consciously combat negative stereotypes. Otherwise, they would not be successful. As children in Jim Crow schools, my schoolmates and I were taught that American society did not expect much of us, that to survive we needed to be keenly aware of what dominant groups thought of us. We would have to work three times as hard as our white counterparts for the same rewards. We would have to "prove" ourselves in every arena to overcome the debilitating effects of stereotypes.
I vividly recall when my seventh-grade homeroom teacher, Constance Howard, told my classmates and me that if we learned to speak and write well, we could "go far" because whites never expect a "Negro to speak and write well." She called it "the element of surprise." In fact, she taught us the meaning of the word stereotype. She insisted that we "avoid playing into stereotypes." She said that "white people expect Negroes to be as dumb as rocks." She said we should "bust stereotypes."
Mrs. Howard greatly influenced me, and I took her advice, especially about writing. Good writers read voraciously and practiced the craft, she said. Each night, I read — Mark Twain, Flannery O'Connor, Shakespeare, H.G. Wells, Thomas Wolfe, James Baldwin, Eudora Welty, William Faulkner, Richard Wright, John Steinbeck, Jane Austen, Ernest Hemingway, Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings and many more, until my folks ordered me to turn out the light and go to bed.
I was determined to be smart, not stereotypically "dumb." And I was not the only one. Several of my classmates and I competed. Who, for example, had read the most books in a week's time? Who could recite an assigned poem?
When I became a college teacher, I would take my black students aside and tell them what I had learned from Mrs. Howard a generation earlier, busting stereotypes. Some eagerly took my advice of using the element of surprise of being smart.
Most, however, rejected my advice, accusing me of wanting them to "act white." My most disappointing experience came at historically black Stillman College in Tuscaloosa, Ala., where I taught for two years. I gave a speech imploring students to do what I had done as an undergraduate: read as much as possible, revise their essays as many times as needed, travel and surround themselves with smart people.
A colleague told me that several students complained immediately following the speech. One reportedly said, "Mr. Maxwell talks like he wants us to be scholars." Another reportedly said, "Nobody wants to go around acting white like him."
I asked the members of my English class this question: "If being smart is acting white, is being dumb acting black?"
Their responses were angry, one calling me an "Uncle Tom." I explained, unsuccessfully, that they were playing into a stereotype when they, black college students, were not seen as being intellectual. I explained that they gained power when they refused to play into negative stereotypes.
"Yes," I said, "I want you all to surprise the world by becoming scholars."