On Playing into Stereotypes

Mice are very good climbers. Did you know that? Very adept at scrambling up to the best vantage point so they can plot their paths of destruction. This is the story of how I learned this unsavory fact along with a few enlightening things about myself.

As I settled in a few nights ago, excited to indulge in some Air Crash Investigations episodes, I heard a rustling by the foot of my bed. A few months ago I heard the same noise and eventually moved my hamper to discover a fist-sized hole had been chewed through my wall. I found that my little uninvited guest had ripped apart a bag that contained an abandoned chocolate-filled croissant. I’m still suspicious about that. Me? Forget I had a chocolate-filled croissant?

I thought the problem was taken care of after we plugged the hole, but obviously not. I hurtled out of my room and stood in the doorway, clearing everything off the floor with a Swiffer handle and absolutely losing it on the phone with B. He reassured me it had to be gone, I had to have scared it, no, I didn’t need to sleep on the futon, no, it couldn’t crawl up my bed in the middle of the night and sit on my chest. I’m still freaked out. Even just writing this, I felt my hair brush my neck and, panicking, yanked my ponytail hard enough to give myself an instant tension headache.

I eventually resumed watching my show in bed when I saw the mouse dart across the floor. I slapped on headphones over earplugs so I didn’t have to hear it and convinced myself it would be gone in the morning. Nope. As soon as I sat up, I saw it hanging out by my door like a dog patiently waiting to go for a walk. I called B, who didn’t answer because he was on his way to work like a fully functioning, productive member of society. So next up was my mom, whom I normally would never call that early because the woman loves her sleep (apple, tree, etc.). Over the next hour and a half, I trembled, hopped around on my bed, screamed curses at the universe, and gave an Oscar-worthy performance for the role of “woman terrified of anything smaller than a kitten.” I wanted to leave, but it was just running back and forth in front of my door. I was a prisoner.

Suddenly, it disappeared. You know how in horror movies, the scariest moment is actually after the killer stops banging on the door and everything goes quiet? It was like that. Then, I  spotted it on top of a suitcase in front of my closet, nestling itself into the clothes I had planned on wearing that day. That was my breaking point. I dissolved into a pile of tears on my bed, babbling nonsense at my mother. Things were also a little touch and go when I lost sight of it, only to crane my neck and see it climbing up my doorframe like a ninja. “Nooo, it’s climbing up the door, it’s on the doorknob,” I moaned tearily to the saint who birthed me. She had been calm the entire time, but now even she was like, “WHAT? It’s doing WHAT?!” That was when I caught myself glancing at the window and thinking, “I can get out, I’m only two stories up.” I was a woman unhinged.

I finally escaped when, following my mom’s instructions, I started hurling things in the mouse’s general direction to scare it away from my door. After some time of not seeing it, I bolted so fast I was probably just a blur. I wish I’d had an audience full of my old PE teachers who would always bark at me like, “Come on, grandma, step it up on this next sprint,” even though I was really giving it all I had.

As I sat on the couch after, twitching when I thought I saw any motion out of the corner of my eye, potential movie titles based on my ordeal ran through my mind. Trapped: One Woman’s Fight to Survive. Or maybe Stranger in the Room: The Zahra Barnes Story. Okay, all jokes aside, I realize this isn’t that serious. I stopped myself from saying “this is the WORST” and instead was like, wait, having a mouse under the roof that’s over my head is not the actual worst. I’ll live.

But, as I screeched at my mom during one particularly hysterical moment when I was having none of her rational “it can’t hurt you” approach, humans have evolved to react negatively to things that move in certain ways. Think snakes, mice, roaches, etc. Their foreign movements set off our alarm bells because it tells us they’re not human and could potentially spread diseases. So my panic was somewhat rational. Although I know this, I still found myself apologizing profusely to my mom and B because I was fulfilling a stereotype I’ve always tried to avoid: the girl who wishes her boyfriend were there so he could handle something scary. That’s not me. Or wasn’t, I thought.

It’s the same thing with fried chicken. Until the past few months, I haven’t ordered it in public because I don’t want to validate people’s “every black person is into fried chicken!” belief. How asinine. Everyone loves fried chicken.

I’ve realized that I deny myself certain freedoms or emotions in trying to not seem like “that type of woman.” It’s just like wanting to be The Cool Girl in dating. I don’t want people to look at me and think, “Oh yeah, so it is true what they say…women are scared of everything. So emotional. Can’t keep it together.” Or “Oh, she’s ordering fried chicken? God, so ghetto.”

Unfortunately, when you’re a black person or a woman (or both, if you’ve won my version of the intersectionality jackpot), some people will look at your actions and apply them to your various identities as a whole. My physical presentation comes with a lot of baggage that often manifests itself in the form of misunderstandings and assumptions. We’re all raised to be prejudiced in various ways, so I’m not faulting anyone for that. But when those ideas go unchallenged and form the basis of people’s impressions of a group, that’s when issues arise.

I know it may seem like a leap to link the fried chicken trope to internalized racism. But the connection is there. That’s why I get told I’m not “a normal black person”: there is an idea of what a “normal” one is, and things like loving fried chicken fall into it. And I don’t like Oreos, so that’s even more of an insult when someone calls me one, thinking I should be flattered. But there’s a flip side of experiencing this supposedly complimentary removal from a negative stereotype. Now my tendency is to avoid being lumped in with a group that’s often seen as less than. So if I can do even the smallest things to prove I’m an outlier, my unconscious instinct is to go ahead and show that I’m different. It’s not to put down people who do fall into these stereotypes. It stems from not wanting to be confined to a group that isn’t seen as good enough.

But you know what? It’s time to stop. Little by little, I need combat the inclination to suppress some parts of myself just to make other people more comfortable. So, yeah, I’m staying at friends’ places tonight and tomorrow until my boyfriend gets here to search my room for more mice. If I see another one, I will shriek just as loudly instead of pretending I’m having no trouble staying inside of my skin. And next time I feel like faceplanting into a plate of gloriously crispy, golden drumsticks, I’ll do it with unconcealed joy and enthusiasm. Because no one should have to deprive themselves of fried chicken.


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