Monday, October 27, 2008
With the World Series under way I find myself watching two teams playing that I had little interest in except that the Brewers played against the Phillies in the playoffs. Yet as the teams dwindled to these two, baseball fans found themselves developing a team alliance usually along Division lines AL vs. NL. We can't help but attach a team identity to our viewing.
The interesting thing about teams is that they are easily identifiable. Jerseys, team colors, mascots, and stadium names help us figure out which team someone is supporting. We even attribute certain traits to team fans: Packer fans are working class and love beer and cheese; Yankee fans are all De Niro wannabes; Laker fans epitomize "cool," wear sun glasses indoors, and one is actually De Niro. Dressing in team gear gives us an instant connection. We can be half-way around the world and someone wearing a Seahawks jersey becomes our new best friend. We assume we speak the same language both literally and figuratively. Surrounding ourselves with like-minded individuals who share our goals, our values, our triumphs, and our disappointments makes us comfortable.
This is exactly why we extend our inclination for team membership to the rest of our lives. Unfortunately it gets messier to identify whose team people are on without the simple parameters that sports teams provide. In high school there were classifications like the jocks, the geeks, the brains, the homecoming queens, and the loners. However such narrow classifications didn't allow for the jock with a 3.8 grade point or the science geek who was also a homecoming queen. Outside of the ivy covered walls life gets even more complicated. We want stereotypes to be true because they allow for a simpler way to approach people and to compartmentalize our lives, but unfortunately people are defined by far too many attributes to pigeon-hole anyone.
When I was in graduate school I was in a study group for my linguistics class. The course was really rough and so we would often get very silly during study group just to keep our sanity. After the semester was nearly over some occasion arose where I mentioned my husband, the doctor. The room became silent. "You're a doctor's wife? But you don't act like a doctor's wife! You're funny." I was curious as to what a doctor's wife was supposed to be like and I was told that first off I shouldn't be in graduate school, I should be wearing designer clothes, I should belong to Junior League, and I should be haughty. Since my mother-in-law is also a doctor's wife and doesn't fit any of those criteria either I was surprised that people still thought that way about my doctor's wife sisterhood. Of course I have also seen a car with the license plate MRS MD which only helps perpetuate the stereotype.
Expectations about team affiliation in life can get ugly. People make assumptions based on factors such as race, religion, gender, social class, and geography. When those assumptions are wrong it's either embarrassing or confrontational. And we've all made them. When I was directing the talent show at my daughter's high school I walked into study hall and asked for some strong boys to help me move some set pieces. Three girls jumped up and said, "What's wrong with strong girls?" OOOOH that hurt! I even wrote a biography of Betty Friedan. But I couldn't avoid my own stereotype of who belonged on the team of strong people.
We all know the uglier examples of stereotyping and the effects. What really spurred me to ruminate on this topic were Democratic Congressman John Murtha's comments that his district in Western Pennsylvania wouldn't vote for Obama because he was black. Apparently the Democratic Party team's agenda isn't as significant as the race team's agenda in Murtha's eyes. If I were a voter in his district I'd be pretty offended whether or not I was voting for Obama. Murtha had assumed that white, older, working class voters wouldn't be able to get past racial issues. If someone didn't vote for Obama that non-support was chalked up to race when in fact it could have been, gasp, on the issues. Expecting white voters not to support Obama is like expecting black voters to all vote for Obama or women voters to vote for McCain because his running mate is a woman. The teams of blacks, whites, women, and men are far too complex to be reduced to a single issue. Unlike the American League wanting to beat the National League, teams in life have multiple goals and cross affiliations.
So even when you're at an intense soccer game, remember that all the people wearing your team colors have lots of other teams they belong to in life. Just because they join with you in wanting to trounce the opposition on the pitch, it doesn't mean they feel the same way about the environment, politics, education, or any other issue in life. And don't assume anyone on the other side of the stands is your enemy. You may find out they belong to your team on lots of things. They just have the wrong jersey on.