Typecasting – Day 8

Assign repeatedly to the same type of role, as a result of the appropriateness of their appearance or previous success in such roles.

In 2006, my high school (Park Center) began the implementation of the International Baccalaureate (IB) programme, with the intention of raising standards at our school and increasing diversity in the district. The roll-out is a topic of its own (that I will likely discuss in the future), but a major goal was for students to open enroll at our school to enter the IB program while students from our school would move to other schools in the district. Students from outside of the district haven’t been open enrolling, though, as mentioned in this Star Tribune article from 2015. What has happened, though, is an increase in academic achievement at Park Center.

Re-reading that Star Tribune article for the first time in a year-and-a-half brought back some interesting memories, but one thing stuck in my mind after the first reading: expectations changed.

Along with the IB Programme, standards were increased and more rigorous curriculum was implemented throughout the rest of the school (the IB-programme is opt-in, or rather, test-in, and doesn’t cover the whole school). Along with the raised rigors, test scores, graduation rates – basically all academic indicators went up demographic- and school-wide. Instead of moving out of the school because of the higher standards, students who hadn’t been expected to were staying and thriving.

None of this surprised me. My high school experience was somewhat varied in the types of classes I took, moving from a mix of “normal” and high performance classes at the start to almost all high-performance classes by the end. There was an obvious difference between the two that I could tell as a student. My experience (along with, I’m sure, some stereotypes) was that there were lower expectations, and students rose to meet those expectations. I have no surprise that students were able to rise to meet the higher expectations.

In this and many other ways, I often think of different experiences or approaches to people as “typecasting.” Typecasting most often refers to an actor or actress who is cast in the same or similar type of role consistently because they seem to “fit the part.” Trying to break out of type is often hard (Jack Black in King Kong, anyone?), and successful cases aren’t rare, but also aren’t necessarily common.

I often look at different places in culture or at different stereotypes or prejudices and wonder if people often live up to expectations because the expectations are all they know. My own experiences are semi-trivial compared to others – often seen as the quiet one, I find myself living to fit that expectation, especially when it is voiced, and find it a harder and longer process to “come out of my shell” when that expectation is vocalized. Is this just my nature, or am I living into the type because it’s others’ expectation of me?

How many people live a certain way just because people are already expecting that? I’ve seen this in situations all the way from sports teams losing because they’re expected to, to “thugs” becoming “thugs,” or people losing hope, or students performing to a certain level because of expectations. The phrase “playing to the level of the competition” comes to mind. Sports teams can have a tendency to play up to the level of a better team or down to the level of a worse team, and I think people operate in a similar fashion. Keep expectations low, and people will play to that level. Raise expectations (and give people the tools to reach those expectations), and people will play up to that level.

I don’t mean to trivialize very real circumstances that are true for many different people. I realize that systems and actual lived life can leave people with no other options, or that people can make bad decisions. But when we write someone off because they did exactly what we expected of them, should we stop to wonder why we had that expectation? Should we allow the systems in place that make certain options the only options for some people?

Even though my experience is different and in many ways less severe than others’, I do feel a large amount of empathy for how a lot of people must feel. It gets to be exhausting to try to break type, so why not just take the easier route and do what’s expected? In some ways, it’s not even that there isn’t effort to change: sometimes the obstacles in our way are things we can’t overcome or can’t change.

Perhaps the challenge for those of us with expectations or stereotypes isn’t to continue with status quo expectations, but to do what we can to motivate others, work to effect change in systems, and work from our own understandings of the expectations on us that put us into a box. Almost everyone (if not actually everyone) knows this feeling, and has ideas of how they can change things or would like to change things. Not only do we have these experiences and thoughts, we know that actual change can lead to results from many different people.

Look back at my high school. It wasn’t just a personal motivation or a small group of students that were affected, like so many feel-good stories that we hear. An entire system was adjusted, and that adjustment allowed for great change with a much larger group of people. It’s easier to work with one person to try to help them; it is much more difficult to work to change a system. It takes an entire group to help re-direct systems, as was seen at Park Center. Not only is the challenge to change the system; the challenge is to see and understand which systems need to be changed. It takes empathy to understand why something is happening or understand a person’s experiences; it takes interaction to understand what needs are actually present and what help can actually be given. Understanding how and why we typecast is one place where we can start.

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