Sticky Stereotypes

A couple of months ago, I conquered one of my biggest fears: engaging someone who actively dislikes me.

When my first column for McSweeney’s came out, a highly articulate individual wrote a scathing critique both of my column and the entire savior complex of the McSweeney’s empire. I am not going to link to the critique, but it spread like wildfire (indeed, appeared more popular than the column that spurred in on) and I am sure you can find it if you try hard enough. It was devastating for me to read (someone “anonymously” sent it to me), as I had never really written for the public in that raw way before, and I was crushed.

Later, I was able to pick the good and true critique from the bad, and dismiss anger and ignorance for what it was. The most important thing I learned from the author of the critique was that I simply can’t project my own feelings and thoughts onto my refugee friends: I must let them speak for themselves, or else they turn into funny, dear, tragic little figures in the story of me. Strangely, I can combat this by on focusing on writing about my own story, as long as I am always honest. This has resulted in a strange reticence for me to share the very best stories–the most funny and the most tragic–of my neighbors and friends. They deserve not to be sensationalized, tidied up, or pitied. But they still deserve to be heard. So who will tell it to us? I am still figuring that one out; I still don’t know if I am supposed to.

The author of the critique said more mean things about me; she e-mailed me, itching for a fight. I had knots in my stomach when I thought of it, wanted to forget and put it all behind me. And then I heard a sermon at my church about being active in love against those who are against us and I thought: ok, I need to do this.

I pitched the idea to Geez magazine. We ended up doing a piece where I wrote a letter to the author of the critique, and then she replied to my letter. I said all the things I wanted to say: how I had changed, how we are all oppressors in one way or another, how the easy ways are the ones where we live in righteous anger or give up in defeat. Of course, I mentioned something about there must be a third way, the prophetic imagination, and inviting my critic to tell me her proposed visions.

I just got the issue in the mail yesterday, and read the response to my letter for the first time. It was ok–still rather mean, unable to get past my Christianity, stating I am glib in my apologies–but it felt good to have done something. To engage someone who has said, in public, that they hate me. To talk about this whole savior complex thing as honestly as I can.

I got a lot of advice against going through with this little experiment. Not giving haters a platform and all that. But of course, it turns out this whole thing was for me: that I am not crushed by one angry person, that I can learn from my mistakes, that I can gather the courage to ask questions instead of shrinking, to find commonalities instead of blaring my own rightness. It felt good, not because it was beautiful or tidy or resolved in any real way. It felt good to be obedient.

And as it turns out, pursuing resolution is a part of the third way. It is a small step towards thinking like Christ, and it has been good for me. Even if I am still not liked.

To read my letter and the response,  find a copy of Geez (Issue 27, the Stereotype Issue). I am grateful to them for giving us this chance to engage one another. You can find more information about the issue here

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4 thoughts on “Sticky Stereotypes

  1. Puneet says:

    Just imagining that is scary. Writing for the public is very, very intimidating, and being critiqued so harshly can certainly be scary. I’d imagine it’s something you might want to put behind you ASAP, like you said. Kudos to you on being able to face it and make some good come out of this!

  2. [...] you know I love everything D.L Mayfield writes. Her post about “Sticky Stereotypes” spoke to me this week as I struggle to write several blog [...]

  3. erraffety says:

    Read about your entry on Jessica’s blog, and the warning to resist turning the least of these into “funny, dear, tragic little figures in the story of me” is something I’m also finding really challenging and convicting. I’m just beginning to think about writing my dissertation about the foster mothers in China who I learned from these past few years, and I want so desperately to do them justice, but it’s scary to think I might mess it up. I appreciate your honesty here, as you write, “They deserve not to be sensationalized, tidied up, or pitied. But they still deserve to be heard. So who will tell it to us? I am still figuring that one out; I still don’t know if I am supposed to.” Will be listening for your continuing discernment on this one- right there with you.

  4. […] once read a warning from another writer about the tendency to make the people we meet and learn from and love,… and the phrase struck real fear into my anthropologist soul.  Even as I write these words now back […]

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