Thinky Discussion Post: Wonder Versus Assume Versus Reject, Stereotypes Versus Cultural Awareness Versus Racism

I’m not gonna really dig into this idea, I just sort of want to outline it and then throw it out there for us all to chew over. Because you are all really intelligent deep thinking people, and many of you are dealing with cultural awareness in terms of watching films from a culture that is not yours, so I think you will have good ideas.

Years and years and years ago, I went to some cultural awareness seminar thing for a job I had. And the leader gave this really brilliant simple concept that I have used ever since then, “Wonder versus Assume”. If you assume, you are stereotyping. But if you wonder, you are being culturally aware.

For example, something I am guessing we have all experienced, if you meet a desi person who is married you might wonder if it was an arranged marriage. But you won’t assume it was an arranged marriage. Your mind is simply open to that possibility because you know it is a possibility within the larger culture of this person.

I love the “wonder” versus “assume” line more for the “wonder” part of it than the “assume”. I knew assumptions were bad, but on the other hand it seemed silly for me to pretend all people are blank slates. Saying “it’s okay, acknowledge statistical likelihoods that you know about, just don’t assume” is so much better.

But here’s the thing that has started to puzzle me recently. When is it not even okay to “wonder”? Like, if I meet a desi person, is it okay to “wonder” if they are an undocumented immigrant? No, it isn’t. But why? What is a simple rule to follow? Is it anything that overlaps with a negative stereotype? Or is it anything that has no statistical backing? How am I supposed to determine what is statistically likely or not? If I don’t know for sure, should I struggle to reject even the “wonder”? Like, I have no idea what the statistics are on meth addiction in rural America, so if I meet someone from a small town, should I not even wonder if their family includes addicts?

Do any of you have an answer for this? Or just a general thought branching out from the discussion? Or your own personal struggles with the whole “wonder” versus “assume” versus “racism”?

12 thoughts on “Thinky Discussion Post: Wonder Versus Assume Versus Reject, Stereotypes Versus Cultural Awareness Versus Racism

  1. Never heard about that distinction between “wonder” and “assume” before, but it makes so much sense.

    I guess my line for when I would try to not even wonder is when it becomes idle speculation. I mean, if you get to know this Desi person better, at some point you might be comfortable asking them how they met their spouse. I am never going to be comfortable asking someone whether they immigrated illegally. So as I’m not comfortable confirming it, it’s not my place to speculate about it.

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    • That’s a good line. If it is something that, no matter how close I get to the person, I would never feel like asking, then it’s off the table.

      On Wed, Jan 27, 2021 at 1:11 PM dontcallitbollywood wrote:

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      • I guess that’s the great thing about the wondering approach. It means you have questions, which means you’re ready to talk and really get to know the other person.

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  2. Hm. I feel like you’re running into harmful stereotypes that are used to marginalize or disempower? Undocumented immigrant and the kind of meth addict image that is an overlay for white trash both plug into stereotypes that are used to prop up existing unjust power structures (race and class, respectively). Wondering about the circumstances of someone’s marriage based on your previous personal relationships and familiarity with cultural practices is conjecture based on actual information without – in your case – a value judgment attached. Wondering about someone’s legal status based on their name or appearance (and not because of personal lived experience or some other well founded reason) is participating in a narrative that says people with certain names or appearances don’t belong and can’t be legitimate citizens.

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    • So maybe it is the data you are using? If I myself lived as an undocumented immigrant, or have close friends who do, and therefore am aware that certain jobs are more friendly to undocumented people than others, and I meet someone who has had a series of those jobs, than I am “wondering” based on lived experience data, not on stereotypes and prejudice? Or (and this is a conversation I have had), if I meet someone from a small town that I know has a serious meth problem because I am from there, I might “wonder” if that is what is happening when they talk about their Dad not really being around any more or something. Weirdest experience by the way, I was chatting with someone and learned that she is from the same small town where one of my aunts lives, and she immediately started kind of gently nudging to find out if my family had meth problems. I wasn’t offended, because she was coming from her own lived experience, but I also had a moment of “wait, IS my 80 year old maiden aunt secretly a meth addict?”

      Here’s the other complication. With Indian culture, you ABSOLUTELY make judgements based on names. Because names are an indicator of ethnicity, religion, and caste/class. But I suppose for the larger culture, hearing “Khan” doesn’t make you go “North Indian, Muslim, generally middle class, probably from Delhi or other urban areas” but instead “terrorist”. Or just in general hearing a “funny” name would make you go “foreigner, illegal, etc.” instead of “Telugu, maybe can recommend Prabhas movies to me”. It’s the same data set, but one conclusion is superstition and ignorance, and the same data can tell someone else something real. Maybe the difference between someone who sees a rash and says “awww, it is the evil eye!” versus someone who sees a rash and says “ahhh, it is poison ivy and here is a steroid cream for it”. Same rash, different thought process.

      On Thu, Jan 28, 2021 at 12:28 AM dontcallitbollywood wrote:

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      • For you as an individual yes, based on available data, but since other people can’t see inside your head, how it lands on them I think depends on how much it plugs into bigger harmful structures or narratives. Like you may have a strong belief that women should have long hair, and short haired women are impulsive and untrustworthy and should not be engaged as friends or employees. But a short-haired woman is unlikely to be suffering from lost opportunities at work or school or getting loans from banks or being otherwise treated unfairly because of her hair length, so if she encountered you and your bias she could brush it off as an annoyance. Whereas if you ask a question that implies you’re questioning someone’s legal status or belonging, and they don’t know you or why you’re asking that, it lands on them as more threatening or hurtful because it may tie to other experiences where they’ve been targeted or excluded, or people in their community have.

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        • But what if the same data leads to totally different kinds of conclusions. So, when I ask a desi person their last name, and then respond with “Oh, my college roommate was Telugu!” after (accurately) understanding their ethnicity, that’s technically still asking their last name just like a prejudiced person would, but my response shows that I am doing something different with the data.

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  3. This is a sentence that has been on the internet for a while, I don’t know the origin of it:
    “The first thought you have (about someone) is what society has made you have, the second thought is your own.”
    Personally, I know my own biases and am trying to work through them to become a better person. But I am always working on to look at people with an open mind, but of course, I do draw the line at some point because there are just some things one cannot look past.

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    • That’s a good sentence, but I would change it slightly from “society” to “previous assumptions”. Just, like, my best friend growing up was Jewish. So for me, whenever I meet a Jewish person, my starting point is her. Does that make sense? Because I met her before I had really formed other stereotypes. It’s still wrong, not every Jewish person is identical to the one Jewish person I met when I was 4, but I have to remind myself of that and switch back to an open mind. Or even more general, my father has a beard. So whenever I meet a man with a beard I immediately trust him, and then have to remind myself “wait, that’s just because of Dad! It has nothing to do with this person!”

      On Thu, Jan 28, 2021 at 2:47 AM dontcallitbollywood wrote:

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