A few weekends ago, June and I hosted a smallgroup. One of the guys who came was in his early 40’s, a bit quiet, college-educated, lived in Boston, clean-shaven, wearing a sweatshirt and jeans and wire-rimmed glasses, an immigrant with accented English. With the exception of being an immigrant, that could describe me. Except our visitor was homeless.
It’s easy to stereotype the homeless with negative connotations, maybe from the media or maybe from contact with panhandlers. In the same way, it’s easy to stereotype the rich and the poor. Interestingly, most people in the U.S. think of themselves as middle-class — the “poor” are people who are worse-off, and the “rich” are people who live in mansions. The danger of such thinking is that it fosters a territorial mentality. It brings about such thoughts as “tax the rich” or “I don’t want to raise my kids in a poor school district.”
Another danger is that stereotypes erase individuality. They prevent one from seeing people as unique children of God, with their own gifts and callings and personal histories. It can be offensive to assume people are a certain way because of a stereotype. “Hey Mr. Asian, can you help me with my math homework?” The PC movement has helped raise awareness of such issues in racial stereotypes. But money and class stereotypes are still strongly entrenched. And buying into those stereotypes can blind us from seeing individual needs. Maybe that trust fund kid has money struggles, while that poor retiree does not. Not every homeless person is looking for a handout, or even a job.
I’m curious to hear about your experiences of being surprised by a “poor” person. Did it change your way of thinking?