The Joy of being Un-Box-Able
Challenging race and gender based stereotyping
“So, what kind of curries do you love to cook?” asked my new boss, a lovely Englishman, with a big smile. I had moved continents to settle in a beautiful corner of the world. We were at a team bonding lunch where the senior management was getting to know the new recruits.
And there emerged the boxes..Tick me! Tick me! They screamed.
I get it. The human brain likes predictability and familiarity. We are constantly trying to make sense of this world.
Boxes are helpful. Assumptions aren’t. Let’s not assume the boxes ticked already, please get to know me, the person, first!
I do not love to cook or clean or sew, or knit. Yes, I grew up in India. I love Indian food, movies, music, clothes. But, I never have and never will aspire to be a domestic goddess. Not because there is anything demeaning about being one. Simply because I am not interested. It doesn’t float my boat!
I have friends who are magnificent cooks and take great pride in their beautifully appointed homes. I have deep respect and admiration for them.
I can cook and clean and sew and knit, the last two in a very sloppy manner. They are life skills, or at least, the first two definitely are.
“ Who cooks for you, your mum in law? “ I got asked at a social gathering of the Indian diaspora once. “ Yes, she cooks haggis really well,” I replied with a wink. The lady knew my mum in law was Scottish but had no idea what haggis was. So, she melted away rather abruptly. It was rather amusing how my disinterest in cooking was automatically assumed as lack of expertise.
An Indian woman is expected to be either traditional or modern. Oriental or Occidental in her preferences. Anything in between makes her ‘un- box- able’ and thereby an annoying enigma.
My being a teetotaler coupled with my ethnic origin, ticked the right box for my western friends and colleagues. Imagine their surprise when they found out I was agnostic and followed no religion or engage in rituals!
“Why won’t you drink wine or eat red meat then?”
“Wine triggers my sinuses and I find red meat smelly.”
I remember running into some old acquaintances on one of my trips back to India. All they wanted to know was how much partying and designer clothes shopping I did as a single, financially independent Indian woman living abroad! Don’t think they believed me when I told them I actually did neither. Again, not because there was anything wrong with either going to parties or wearing designer brands. I just didn’t like noisy crowds or eye watering price labels!
Gender and racial stereotyping aren’t reserved for women alone. I have seen people struggle with the idea of stay-at-home dads and male nurses. A man is made to feel like a Demi-God if he bakes brownies for the office shout. He is praised for being housebroken and for being ‘good with the kids.’
Some of my male friends have confided in me that they find this kind of praise to be almost like an insult.
Of course, a lot of institutionalised biases and stereotyping are gradually being wiped out. The start of an endless process has happened.
That’s the easy bit.
Way more challenging is to wipe out the biases and belief systems deeply entrenched in the human psyche for generations. The ones we are not even aware of.
Let me share with you another societal expectation women in all parts of the world are subject to, the expectation of motherhood.
I chose to have a child rather late in life.
Motherhood was a commitment I could not make before being absolutely sure I was ready to put another human’s needs ahead of my own 24/7 for pretty much the rest of my life.
A colleague of mine told me of her experience after making a similar decision. Keen to see the world, she and her husband put off being parents for as long as they could. My friend finally conceived after returning from a three-month overseas trip. The gossip in her family circles was that she had undergone fertility treatment abroad.
That this girl put off having a baby for a decade out of choice was incomprehensible to most other women in her family.
Let me end by talking about something that will definitely resonate with many.
What do we make of the introverts or even the ambiverts amongst us? Do we expect them to be quiet and shy, self-doubting and probably self-effacing? I believe we find them to be all of those things because that is what we are looking for.
Those are the boxes we expect them to tick.
As an ambivert who comes across as more of an introvert, I have certainly unticked many of those boxes repeatedly, especially the self-effacing one. I found it rather ironic that I was the only one who told a certain workplace bully that their behaviour was utterly unacceptable.
So, how do we deal with this societal expectation of each one of us fitting neatly into boxes?
With a generous dollop of patience laced with a liberal amount of humour, I would say. The joke’s on the compulsive box tickers. Let them do their social, racial, gender-based profiling.
Just when they think they have got you figured, drop the bombshell. Upset the apple cart and enjoy the show.
Be un- box-able with aplomb.