Societal prejudice and discrimination is often the result of conformity to social norms and teachings. Normative pressures to have prejudiced beliefs towards the race, sexual orientation, and social status of individuals often result from the acceptance of these prejudices in society. This often results in a mold that society expects the minority population to conform to and discourages them from reaching their highest potential in life. Only those who realize that society’s expectations in regards to one’s background do not determine their future, are capable of breaking the stigma and becoming successful.
When there are societal stereotypes about a person, people tend to treat the person according to those expectations. This treatment can influence the person to act according to the stereotypic expectations, thus confirming stereotypic beliefs. This can be demonstrated in Dorothy Allison’s personal essay, “A Question of Class,” when Dorothy compares the attitude of Greenville’s residents towards the lower class to that of Central Florida’s, stating that: “in Greenville, everyone knew [her] family, knew [they] were trash, and that meant [they] were supposed to be poor, supposed to have grim low paid jobs, have babies in [their] teens, and never finish school” (Allison 43). However, she explains that “because [Central Florida] did not see poverty and hopelessness as a foregone conclusion for [her] life, [she] could begin to imagine other futures for [herself].” Regardless of the assumptions about her future solely based on her family, Allison put in years of effort and hard work to become a successful writer and lesbian feminist. She uses her story to inspire others and proves the significance of disregarding prejudice to reach success.
As long as one remains focused on their goals and perseveres, societal expectations cannot stop them from becoming a reality. This is illustrated by Frederick Douglass’ dedication to become literate in his memoir, Learning to Read and Write. Although being literate was illegal for slaves at the time, Frederick Douglass still managed to learn the skills by outsmarting society and taking advantage of the resources he had. For instance, he states that he “made friends of all the little white boys whom [he] met in the street… with their kindly aid, obtained at different times and different places, [he] finally succeeded in learning to read” (Douglass 107). This demonstrates how Douglass managed to pass the barriers that limited his education and learned regardless of the discrimination set against his race and heritage. Douglass could have simply given up learning when his mistress “ceased to instruct him… and commenced to practice her husband’s precepts” to prevent his literacy; however Douglass’ dedication to keep fighting for his education exceeded her efforts. His perseverance paid off “after a long, tedious effort [of] years” when he finally mastered reading and writing (Douglas 111). He eventually became a nationally recognized author for his memoirs depicting the struggles of slaves in the 1880s, proving that one’s commitment to reach their goal needs to exceed societal expectations to become a reality.
One must change their mindset to rise above societal standards and succeed in life. This claim is demonstrated exceptionally well in the story of Superman & Me by Sherman Alexie. In Superman & Me, Alexie writes about the societal stereotype that labels people with Native American heritage as less intellectual than other Americans. Alexie writes, “If he’d been anything but an Indian boy living on the reservation, he might have been called a prodigy” (36). By indicating that his race alone prevents him from being called a “prodigy,” he conveys the severity of the stigma surrounding his identity because individuals with a more privileged background would readily be praised with that title if they had the talent and skill set he possessed. Although Alexie was aware of the low standard society had set for his race, he “refused to fail” and accept it (36). He spent his days reading any piece of literature he could get his hands on and over time proved society wrong by reading better than his classmates. Alexie’s mindset to break the stigma around his race distinguished him from the other Indian children who conformed to the societal norm without question. As a result of this mindset and dedication, he eventually became a famous author who is driven to inspire younger Native American children to break the stigma around their heritage and master the skill of reading as he did.
Societal norms are very powerful and can often influence individuals to fit certain stereotypes; however, one must differentiate them from reality to reach success. James Baldwin passionately demonstrates this in his essay, Notes of a Native Son, by describing the social implications that came with being an African American male in the 1940s. After his father’s passing, he wrote that “[he] had time to become aware of the meaning of all [his] father’s bitter warnings” and “discovered the weight of white people in the world” (Baldwin 68). However, Baldwin did not allow this inequality to weigh him down, stating that “one must never, in one’s own life, accept these injustices as commonplace but must fight them with all one’s strength” (Baldwin 77). In this claim, Baldwin eloquently conveys his message that it is unjust for African Americans to accept segregation, regardless of the societal norm it was at the time. Although Baldwin had the opportunity to convey his message violently through expressing his anger and fighting back against segregation, he soon realized that the best way to influence society’s ways was to become an author. To this day, people regard Baldwin’s work as a successful reflection of the struggles African Americans faced during the cruel and difficult times post Emancipation Proclamation. If Baldwin had attempted to advocate violently for his beliefs, as society expected of African Americans at the time, he would not have made the impact he has made today.
Finally, it is important to peacefully stand up for yourself in a society that labels you as inferior. Maya Angelou expresses this claim in her selection,“What’s Your Name, Girl?” by fighting against prejudice in her own way. In this story, Angelou writes about a particular experience she had that demonstrated the racism she faced from her kind-hearted mistress that confined to the societal norm against African Americams. By using her wit to peacefully protest, Maya was able to make her mistress feel guilty about her actions and change her ways. This is demonstrated when her mistress exclaims “Her name’s Margaret, goddammit, her name’s Margaret!” and calls Margaret by her real name for the first time after she cleverly broke the Virginia dishes (Angelou 60). Although Margaret could have followed the example set by Miss Glory, who accepted being called a different name by her mistress, she decided not to tolerate this disrespectful behavior and succeeded in stirring change in society in her own way. This is proves that one can influence others to stop abiding to societal norms by protesting peacefully and that small victories go a long way in making an impact on people’s perspectives.
The key to success for people stigmatized by society’s stereotypes is to disregard them completely. As proven by the claims of James Baldwin, Dorothy Allison, Frederick Douglas and other authors analyzed in this essay, individuals who do not allow societal norms to hold them back from reaching their goals are capable of making them a reality. Without this knowledge, individuals will hopelessly believe and mold into these stereotypes.