Empathy, stereotypes and Merry Christmas

Around this time of year, I find myself in public places like grocery stores constantly be wished “Merry Christmas.” This, of course, does not at all bother me (although being Jewish I recognize the significance of the holiday, I do not celebrate Christmas), and my standard response is “Merry Christmas to you, too.” Emails in late December from colleagues who do not know that I am Jewish often express similar sentiments, although typically a more generic “Happy Holidays” sometimes replaces the more specific Christmas wishes.

My reason for not explaining that I am Jewish is unrelated to a fear of anti-Semitism but is purely pragmatic; I am often on my way out the door when the greeting is called out — and what does it matter, anyway? The whole intention was from a well-wisher, and does it matter how it was expressed?

All these thoughts brought me to a little experience that I had a few weeks ago, walking my dog Ginger through the neighborhood and down a little gully toward a hiker-biker path. On this Sunday morning, I passed a couple that I assumed were probably in their early 70s. The woman was wearing a traditional sari, and I assumed that the couple was likely from India. While Omaha is definitely becoming a much more cosmopolitan city, admittedly, my neighborhood out in the western suburbs is not especially diverse. I passed them, greeted them with a “good morning” and continued on my way.

As I walked on, it occurred to me that as I was thinking to myself that it’s great that the neighborhood is showing more diversity, with more African Americans and Indians, the couple I passed could be similarly stereotyping me. A large “white”/Caucasian male is par for the course in Nebraska. And while I am not large, perhaps in comparison with the Indian couple I appeared to be. Next, Nebraskan natives are definitely dog lovers, and a huge proportion of households have a dog (or more than one). Often the dogs are large ones, such as Labrador retrievers — and Ginger is a large dog.

So all in all, it wouldn’t be a stretch for the couple to look at old Steve (and if they knew my name, that might be another hint at a typical Nebraskan native) and figure that I was probably born, raised and lived all my life here. And wouldn’t that be a joke!

So next time someone wishes me a “Merry Christmas” perhaps I should wonder whether they necessarily celebrate Christmas themselves, or are merely saying it for my benefit…

In any case, to the best of my knowledge, Merry Christmas to all of YOU!

About Steve Caplan

I am a Professor of Biochemistry and Molecular Biology at the University of Nebraska Medical Center in Omaha, Nebraska where I mentor a group of students, postdoctoral fellows and researchers working on endocytic protein trafficking. My first lablit novel, "Matter Over Mind," is about a biomedical researcher seeking tenure and struggling to overcome the consequences of growing up with a parent suffering from bipolar disorder. Lablit novel #2, "Welcome Home, Sir," published by Anaphora Literary Press, deals with a hypochondriac principal investigator whose service in the army and post-traumatic stress disorder actually prepare him well for academic, but not personal success. Novel #3, "A Degree of Betrayal," is an academic murder mystery. "Saving One" is my most recent novel set at the National Institutes of Health. Now IN PRESS: Today's Curiosity is Tomorrow's Cure: The Case for Basic Biomedical Research (CRC PRESS, 2021). https://www.amazon.com/kindle-dbs/entity/author/B006CSULBW? All views expressed are my own, of course--after all, I hate advertising.
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2 Responses to Empathy, stereotypes and Merry Christmas

  1. Bravo for that salvo against overt political correctness, and an interesting reverse take on stereotyping.

    So… Merry Christmas to you, too, meant in all possible best ways. And happy 2015. 🙂

  2. Laurence Cox says:

    I wish you a, belated, Happy Chanukkah in return.

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