Seemingly Innocuous Stereotypes
Since many Canadians help each other in times of crisis, it is generally believed that they are all helpful and kind. However, making the sweeping generalization that all Canadians are helpful and kind is rather stereotypical as there are some Canadians that do not fit this description. This stereotype is only one of the many cultural stereotypes perpetuated by people around the world as there are many more incorrect generalizations based on race, religion, and age. Nevertheless, judging others by virtue of these widespread stereotypes is not only irresponsible but also dangerous since it can have irrevocable consequences. In the short story “Identities,” W.D. Valgardson raises awareness about stereotyping and its consequences by narrating the unfortunate death of an innocent person due to the stereotypical and impulsive judgement made by a police officer. The officer commits a deadly stereotype when he associates the main character with theft and crime due to his surrounding neighbourhood, his casual appearance, and his seemingly unmatched possessions.
One of the factors that causes the police officer to stereotype the main character is the main character’s surrounding neighbourhood. The story takes place in an impoverished area where “houses are squat,” fences “are little more than fragments,” and “cars jam the narrow streets” (Valgardson 1). In such a neighbourhood, residents can naturally be associated with poverty, a stereotype that leads the police officer to assume that the main character is rather destitute as well. However, the police officer’s judgment is flawed as the man is actually a visitor from a rich neighbourhood. Apart from the blatant poverty, it can be inferred that the rate of theft in this neighbourhood is rather high from the fact that “a ten-foot wire fence enclosing a playground bare of equipment and pounded flat [has a] gate [that] is double locked” (Valgardson 1). This is rather ironic since many playgrounds full of priceless equipment are freely accessible to everyone in all Canadian cities. In fact, most of them do not have any form of security encircling the area at all. However, in the story, an empty playground bare of any equipment has the tight security of a “double lock” and a “ten-foot wire fence” that is well taller than a person (Valgardson 1). Moreover, it is even stated that all material substances, whether valuable or worthless, “are all proscribed by stiff picket fences” to preclude any chance of theft (Valgardson 1). As a result, all citizens in the area, regardless of origin, wealth, or race, can be associated with crime and theft. Equally important, the people in the neighbourhood affect the impression of the area as well. It is stated that the main character passes by “[g]angs of young men” as well as a group of “three young men and a girl” (Valgardson 1-2). The fact that only groups of seemingly suspicious teenagers are seen on the streets may lead to the generalization that the community is fraught with danger despite the fact that little is actually known about the citizens and their behaviour. Due to these observations, the police officer makes a stereotypical judgement about the main character and regards him as a possible thief rather than an owner.
Another notable factor that leads to stereotyping in the story is looks and attire. Ironically, even the protagonist, who is himself a victim of stereotyping, makes sweeping generalizations about people based on their appearance. He feels anxious as he passes a group of teenagers who have “slick hair” and “leather jackets [that] gleam with studs [as] [e]agles, tigers, wolves, and serpents ride their backs” (Valgardson 1). Although the main character does not know this group of teenagers, he still fears them since he associates their sleek hair and leather jackets with potential criminals. However, there is a fair chance that they are innocent teenagers who are merely taking a stroll around the block. Unfortunately, this kind of association happens in the world as well. For example, it would be more likely for many to suspect a teenager in a hoodie than a teenager in a shirt and pants. Young people in casual clothing are naturally associated with a possible crime while those in professional attire are identified as virtuous people. Similarly, a man would be judged to be more potentially dangerous if he has unkempt hair or a shaggy beard. Therefore, intuitively, people judge others’ identities and personalities based on their appearance. Likewise, the police officer who “has been trained to see an unshaven man in blue jeans as a potential thief” incorrectly stereotypes the main character, associating his casual blue jeans and his one-day-old stubble with theft and shooting him when he fails to follow his orders (Valgardson 2).
People also stereotype when their observations are inconsistent with their past experiences. In a community where everyone is associated with theft, crime, and poverty, a person with lavish belongings, such as a Mercedes, would be considered out of place and hence suspicious. The main character is described as “driving a grey Mercedes Benz,” a car that is considered to be extremely extravagant in this neighbourhood (Valgardson 1). Therefore, it is assumed that such a car cannot belong to the main character since it is impossible for a poor person to afford such a luxury. Making such an assumption that anyone with expensive possessions in a poor neighbourhood is “a potential thief and not … a probable owner” is a stereotype, and it is this same stereotype that causes the police officer to regard the car as an indicator of theft (Valgardson 2). What causes the police officer to be even more confident in his assumption is the fact that for him, none of the main character’s other possessions appear to match his high-end car. Even though the main character is wearing priceless attire comprising “matching pants and jacket made in Paris,” they still come across as cheap types of clothing (Valgardson 1). This is because there are cheaper alternatives available as denim jackets and jeans can be purchased at a much lower price than that of the ones that he is wearing. On the other hand, if he was wearing a tuxedo paired with dress pants, attire that is regarded as expensive items of clothing, the police officer would be convinced that he is a wealthy man and hence the rightful owner of the car. Unfortunately, his jeans and denim jacket do not give the same impression since they are associated with crime, leading the police officer to stereotype him as a person of low status. As a result, he disregards the possibility that the protagonist is the rightful owner and stereotypes him as a car thief.
The police officer stereotypes the main character in the story to be a thief because of the run-down neighbourhood, his casual appearance, and his unmatched possessions. The police officer’s impulsive judgement results in the loss of a person’s life. Unfortunately, similar events occur in the world as many people have lost their lives due to misjudgement and stereotypes. In fact, racial stereotypes are one of the greatest influences on people’s impressions. The death of George Floyd, an innocent black man, only happened because the police officer judged him based on common stereotypes about black people; he associated him with theft and crime, causing him to be unreasonably harsh on Floyd. Nevertheless, in reality, he was an innocent man accused of crime merely due to his skin colour. Therefore, it is important to put an end to stereotyping and learn to take the time to understand the unique identities of each and every individual.