As a Peer Mentor this year, I recently read a book entitled Outliers: The Story of Success (by Malcolm Gladwell) which the incoming freshmen are required to read as part of their Orientation. I’m sure we all remember the experience: boring book, boring discussion, the increasingly frequent glances at our watches as we wonder why Fate has decided to punish us by slowing time to a seeming standstill. But it was worth it right?
I don’t care. I don’t have a problem with the system, I have a problem with the system’s choice. The first half of this book discusses how hard work, determination, and seizing opportunities presented to you can make you an “outlier,” a success story, someone like Bill Gates or the Beatles. That’s all fine. In fact, that’s exactly what the fresh meat on campus should be told. Perfect. Great. Wunderbar as the German majors would exclaim.
In the best of all possible worlds, the book would have ended after the first half. Unfortunately, it does not. Instead, it was almost as if the first half suddenly discovered it had an evil, racist twin. That evil racist twin is the second half.
Did you know Asians are good at math? What about that Jewish people make good lawyers? Even worse, did you know Koreans are bad pilots? In his book, Malcolm Gladwell attempted to confirm nearly every stereotype we’ve ever heard (especially the popular ones). He might as well have said that black people are good workhorses. Now, I know, I’m just a middle class white kid, and I know that there is a place in this society for cultural context. Even more, I’m frankly sick and tired of everyone who can jumping on the bandwagon and crying discrimination every time someone says anything even remotely off-color. Some of the points Gladwell made were valid. For instance, one of the reasons he cited for Asia’s excellence at mathematics was that the numbering system in their language was more logically organized. I can buy that. I can even buy that there are a lot of successful Jewish lawyers at this time because when they started out they weren’t accepted by powerful firms run by powerful Christians and so were forced to practice law in unconventional ways that eventually became the popular norm. And maybe Koreans aren’t good pilots because they have societal issues with clear communication. Maybe.
The problem is, Gladwell proposed that these characteristics carry beyond that first generation. Wrong. I might think of myself as a middle class kid, but ninety years ago my Irish and Scottish and German ancestors all had their own cultural characteristics. They’re gone now. I don’t wear a kilt, I don’t have a brogue, and I wouldn’t be caught dead in lederhosen. I’m part Jewish too, but I don’t want to be a lawyer and fifth generation Asians who have become part of American society, won’t necessarily be good at math. Malcolm Gladwell is doing exactly what other people are doing when they say that black people like fried chicken and watermelon. I know, plenty of people find the African American dinner at Glad offensive because that’s exactly what they offer. Many, many years ago that was part of African American culture. But that was at a time when African Americans were unfortunately not allowed to be a part of the American culture as a whole. Now that that is frequently easier and easier to do, it’s just not. Cultures blend together here, this is America, the great melting pot, remember?
So when Gladwell talks about Asian math geniuses and Jewish lawyers, he’s promulgating a stereotype, and there is no such thing as a good stereotype. Stereotypes force people into a role and, if they don’t want to be part of that role or they simply can’t, everyone else believes there is something wrong with them. Even more dangerous, there will always be people who twist stereotypes into whatever they want to make them. Gladwell says Koreans make bad pilots, someone else deduces that they must make bad drivers as well. Gladwell’s stereotyping leads to racism, just like everyone else’s stereotyping does.
So for those of you who were offended by this book, don’t worry, I was too, and I didn’t even have a personal reason to be.