|Publicity photo for Committed, the vocal group that won NBC's The Sing Off last year and whose new record is in stores now. My students made a lot of noise for them when we saw them at mini-concert recently--that noise is the subject of this entry|
Stereotypes are funny things (or, sometimes not).
We tend to think of them as patently false, but honestly a lot of time that's not the case. Many times there is an elment of truth that creates the stereotype and gives it staying power.
We tend to reject negative stereotypes about our gender, ethncity, culture and so on. But more often than not we're only too happy to welcome postive stereotypes.
Stereotypes are tricky. What makes them so is that even when they have an elment of truth, they never apply universally to the group in question. There are always exceptions. And this is what makes stereotypes dangerous--they lead us to make judgements about people before we know them; they lead us to think we know a woman or a man, a black, white or Asian person, gay or straight, when we really don't.
But this blog is not about exceptions to stereotypes. This blog is about one particular stereotype that happened to hold true on one particular morning in the auditorium of a wealthy, predominantly white high school in New Albany, Ohio.
The stereotype is this: Black people are loud. We talk loud, sing loud, laugh loud (occasionally accompanied by falling out of our chairs in hilarity), shout loud, pray loud. Black folks at the dinner table, in a group coming down the street, at the movie theater, at church (thank the Lord, at least when you've got a toddler who's plenty loud himself--must be his dad's side. . .), and in this case the aforementioned auditorium. If black folks are around, prepare yourself. It might get loud.
Here's the story: On Friday, September 16 grades 5-8 at Columbus Adventist Academy had the unique opportunity to see a mini-concert and Q&A session by Committed a hot new vocal group that won The Sing-Off, an American Idolesque talent competiton that aired on NBC this past December. Our school felt a special tie to the group. Committed's members have Seventh-day Adventist roots. They met in high school at Forest Lake Academy, the same school I graduated from, and all attended Oakwood University, the Adventist church's Historically Black college in North America. Several of my colleagues have personal connections to the group as well, so while we didn't know them personally, we felt a personal connection. That sense of connection may have actually had as much to do with what happened that morning as anything else.
|A somewhat blurry photo that I took of Committed performing at the McCoy Community Arts Center in New Albany, OH|
Committed had done a full concert the night before in downtown Columbus, but had put aside a little time before their next gig to meet with students at the McCoy Community Arts Center on the campus of New Albany High School (just around the corner from where we live, incidentally). The auditorium was at capacity and we felt lucky to be one of the schools able to get a seat for this special event. We arrived just before the program began, and I noted almost unconsciously that we were the only predominantly black school in attendance; a fact that surprised me given that Committed are black.
Here's Committed performing on NBC's The Sing-Off
Though we were small, we defnitely made ourselves known. My kids were enthused, grooving joyfully to each tune by the group, and cheering enthusiastically at the end of each number. When Committed called on us to cheer, we cheered. When they asked for an "Oh Yeah!" we gave one back with vigor! The rest of the audience was quite sedate by comparison, clapping politely after each number and sitting virtually stock still through the group's rhythmic virtuosity. CAA alone, and a trio of my girls in particular, stood out in their loud approval of Committed's outstanding show. There were a few a moments when I wondered if I should tell them to tone it down a little--after all, when in Rome, do as the Romans right? But to tell the truth, I didn't have an issue with anything they were doing. They weren't being rude or disruptive. They weren't shouting out song lyrics, they weren't standing up, blocking the view of others, just swaying in their seats. They cheered when it was time to cheer and were quiet when it was time to be quiet. The only "wrong" thing they were doing was doing what the rest of the audience was doing--only a lot more enthusiastically. And a lot louder.
(Full disclosure: when they name-checked Orlando and Forest Lake Academy I gave a lone whoop myself, and when they gave a shout-out to us their Adventist brothers and sisters at CAA at the end, we all went a little crazy for about 20 seconds)
In truth, I was kind of glad my kids were showing some enthusiasm. As a performer myself I know what it is to try to rouse a "dead" audience. It's no fun performing for an audience that seems to be made of stone. And as I watched the members of Committed trying pump up the audience and not getting much of a response (except from us), I felt bad for them and I was actually grateful someone was making some noise. I felt that it wasn't the ebullient CAA kids that were "wrong", but everyone else.
But not everyone agreed. As the students filed out at the end of the program one of the high-schoolers called out "Go back to your own school." One of the trio of especially energetic girls reported that she'd received nasty stares and had been told by another student to "shut the f*** up."
When we got back to school, we talked about what happened at the program during our weekly "Tribal Council" (I'm doing a Survivor theme in my class this year). We weighed the appropriateness of our actions, talked about when is the time to fit in, and when is the time to stand out. We talked about race and about stereotypes. Most of my students declared themselves black, loud and proud. But I pointed out that not every black person is loud (indeed, when I polled the other two teachers with us on the trip, one felt like me that the students weren't out of line, and the other felt that they'd over done it--"but then, I'm not a loud person myself" she explained. And she is not. Though she is black). I reminded the students to consider the line between being enthusiastic and being obnoxious. We pondered that as Christians, we need to consider those around us and not just our own preferences. But on the whole, I remained convinced that we had been considerate--of the performers, who I hope appreciated our support, even if that bothered some people around us.
I'm still not a 100% sure, but at least for now, I'm okay with how my students behaved. And I'm 100% certain that I'm proud of how they responded when people acted ugly towards them. Rather than fulfilling another much less pleasant stereotype--cursing back, jumping over a chair and going after the one who insulted them--they let it go. When they might have gotten loud, and felt justified in doing so, they ignored the insults and went merrily on their way. When things might have gotten nasty, their actions spoke louder than their voices.