When my first year flatmate asked me whether I owned a gun, I thought that she was taking a dig at me. With my brown hair and Boston twang against her spiraling red hair and a thick Glaswegian accent, some of our differences were already evident. Coming from a suburb of Massachusetts where the gay flag hangs in front of the town church, the implication that I would own a gun was something to which I took offense. I retorted, “Of course. I sleep with it under my pillow.”
Although Freshers’ week is a time when bright-eyed students are at their most sociable, I felt like I was constantly deflecting increasingly offensive questions. Ranging from “why aren’t you fat?” to “do you know where Spain is?,” I wasn’t sure whether to uncomfortably laugh or become red in the face over their flagrant stereotyping of Americans as obese, God-fearing, gun-loving, uneducated zealots.
Three weeks into university, between kitchen clean-ups and drunken heart-to-hearts, my flat had become quite close. They stopped asking me to say “privacy” and I stopped calling kitchen roll “paper towels” – we were learning each other’s norms. For this reason, I was taken aback when on a lazy Monday, the Glaswegian beauty asked me what type of gun I owned. However, the tone of her question was not accusatory, as I had once interpreted it to be, but genuinely inquisitive. She actually thought that I owned a gun and did not realize why I would find the question unfounded. I realized that my abrupt response had made no attempt at understanding or addressing the assumptions on which it was based. I had missed an opportunity to explain that although America has a problem with gun control, it is not, in fact, the land of semi-automatic weapons. With tea and Digestives in hand, we discussed the ongoing debate in the US about common-sense gun laws and increasing regulation.
It occurred to me that maybe being politically incorrect was the first step towards understanding. How can you get to know someone else and their culture if you don’t first confront the stereotypes which have already colored your perceptions? If your information about another country comes from biased news and television shows and is based on ubiquitous stereotypes, it is difficult to separate dramatizations from reality. I came to realize that as offensive as the questions I was asked may have been, I had made equally cringeworthy remarks about other cultures. Maybe asking the Hungarian golfer how many people he needed to bribe to get his license wasn’t in the best taste. I definitely could have refrained from asking my Pakistani friend whether she could go into the city alone. But I’m glad that I didn’t. From asking those questions, I was able to learn about the Hungarian bureaucracy and Pakistani societal norms and security. The beauty of the Bubble is that, although we may be isolated from the reality of the world, there is so much diversity within that we will never run out of different cultures and perspectives to discover. We may as well take advantage of the international student body that St Andrews attracts.
Donald Trump, the businessman and presidential candidate, famously said to a crowd of cheering supporters, “I don’t frankly have time for total political correctness, and to be honest with you, this country doesn’t have time either.” I disagree. Political correctness is not a waste of time, especially when it is used in defense of calling women “fat pigs” and “dogs.” Believe it or not, I don’t think that Donald Trump was trying to learn anything about women by telling one that she would look “pretty” on her knees. Honestly, I’m surprised that women still talk to Donald Trump at all. Being blatantly and unnecessarily offensive under the guise of being a “straight-shooter” is never justifiable. We, as educated and compassionate individuals, should make every effort to be respectful of others’ experiences and reflect on the generalizations that we have allowed to impact our understanding of different cultures. It is when we confuse fact and stereotype that it becomes okay to clarify, regardless of how ill-informed the question may sound.
So please ask me whether I go to McDonalds daily and don’t judge me when I ask how closely your secondary school parties resembles that of Skins’. I would so much rather confront your worst assumptions than have them unasked out of fear of looking ignorant. We are all learning, one moderately offensive question at a time.