Type and Other Biases, Part II
I’ve been thinking about race and personality type my entire life. Early on I may not have had an educated grasp of the concepts or the correct vocabulary to express myself, but when I look back at my life, race and type were always a significant part of my experiences.
Recently I’ve expanded my focus to include ‘culture,’ by which I mean all the different social identities a person might possess. For example, I am a woman, I am a Latina of Mexican ethnicity, I am a Lesbian, I’m in my fifties, and I have ENFJ preferences. I have a very clear sense that my dominant and auxiliary mental functions of extraverted feeling (Fe) and introverted intuiton (Ni) are inseparable from my race/ethnicity and that my internal experience of type is affected by that. As far as I know there is no research on this topic so I have no proof, but my preference for introverted intuition clearly tells me, I know what I know. Which of course begs the questions, what do I know and how do I know it?
Explaining my intuitive sense of knowing to other people has always been a challenge since I seldom have the hard data at hand to back my conclusions. For as long as I can remember I’ve been able to quickly absorb what appear to be disparate pieces of information and see a pattern, theme, or trend emerge. This is especially true when the information is about people or organizations where I can also employ my dominant function of extraverted feeling. It’s like a kaleidoscope of shifting images and impressions that suddenly come together to form a picture resulting in what I ‘know.’ Of course this all happens inside my head where no one else can see the process. What others do experience is the certainty with which I deliver my conclusions. The bewildered ‘where did that come from?’ look I often encounter has led me at times to heights of indignant stubbornness. I know what is going to happen, yet nobody believes me. When events would transpire as I had foreseen, I would tell people “Just call me Cassandra,” feeling a great affinity for the Greek goddess who had the gift of prophecy but was never believed by anybody and mostly treated like a madwoman. She accurately prophesied the downfall of Troy but of course there wasn’t anybody left afterwards to tell ‘I told you so!’
Reconnecting with my inner Cassandra led to other memories of my past. In spite of all the thinking and writing I’ve done on this subject, I hadn’t really looked at my childhood self to help find the answers. So I began reflecting back on my childhood, trying to dredge up my earliest memories of type and race. Recalling past events with clarity is not an easy thing for me to do; my memories are not crisp with detail like those I’ve heard described by people with a preference for Sensing. When I try to remember my past experiences it’s like being immersed in a Georges Seurat painting. Although I can discern the individual components, they appear to me as soft images that are part of a larger whole imbued with subtle tones of feeling and perception. I suppose it’s no wonder that A Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte is one of my favorite paintings. Add in the fact that as a child I had no language for the concepts of race or personality type and the memories become even more elusive, like grasping smoke that dissolves away as soon as my hand gets near. I tell you this so you’ll understand that the general facts of my story are all true but I know that some of the details are my mind’s eye filling in the blanks.
The first time I remember encountering race and type was in 1966. I was a seven-year-old first-grader at St. Francis Cabrini Catholic Elementary School in San Jose, California. During recess all the students from grades one through six would go outside where the boys played tetherball and the girls played hopscotch. We all wore our school uniforms which consisted of navy blue and grey plaid skirts, white blouses, navy blue or white knee socks and navy blue cardigan sweaters for the girls along with lace up saddle oxford shoes. The boys were dressed in long grey or navy blue pants with short-sleeved white shirts and navy blue sweaters. When the nuns lined us up to go in after recess, we all looked alike, like a string of paper dolls. Conformity was encouraged not only in dress but in manner as well. Politeness, “Yes Sister, no Sister, please Sister, thank you Sister,” was highly prized along with the virtues of punctuality and obedience. Students who followed the rules were rewarded with praise and gold stars. Those who talked too much or asked too many questions were given a trip down the hall to Mother Superior’s office. My type preferences often manifested in chatty behavior that earned me a seat on the bench outside that office. The stern lectures I received left me tearful and wounded—feelings that were compounded when I related the stories at home. Not only was I the youngest of four children, often referred to as ‘the baby’ of the family, but my siblings called me a drama queen, remarking that I overreacted and took things ‘too personally.’ From my mother came reminders to behave myself, do what I was told, and try not to be so sensitive. The clear message was for me to be more like my siblings; and from these experiences I learned to talk less, keeping my hurt feelings to myself.
One school day I was waiting in line to get a drink of water from the drinking fountain during recess. There was a girl in line in front of me and off to the side three boys standing near the fountain but not waiting for a drink. When it was my turn I took a step forward towards the fountain but before I could reach it, the boys rushed in from the side to block my way. “What do you want?” asked one of the boys, his crossed arms over his chest in an authoritative pose in front of the other two boys. “I want a drink of water,” I told him, but as I made a move to go around him, he stepped in front of me again. Before I could say anything or react in any way, he told me, “You can’t drink here. This fountain is for people. No monkeys allowed.”
My memory of our interaction ends there; but from that day forward, I knew I was different. The brown color of my eyes, the dark olive tone of my skin, the coarseness of the black hair on my arms and head, my last name—they all set me apart from my classmates. Their eyes shone blue or green in freckled faces and their skin was milky white. They were called Jimmy or Kathleen with last names like Kelly or O’Connor and nobody in their family would ever be mistaken for a monkey. I also knew and understood that I was different from the Dominican Sisters from Mission San Jose who ran the school. Although their nun’s habits covered everything except their wimple-framed faces and their hands, I knew they were more like my classmates than I was.
Looking back on this and other childhood memories, I see how race/ethnicity and type became linked for me in terms of my personality type development. The hurt, confusion, and sense of otherness that resulted from the drinking fountain event were indistinguishable from the hurt, confusion, and sense of otherness that I related to my extraverted feeling preference. Being different, both at school and within my modal Thinking type family gave me a perspective that informed all the subsequent race and type events I experienced in the years after. Not being a member of the dominant group, because of type, race/ethnicity or both, affected my internalized processing of the events and behavior around me which often resulted in my sense of not fitting in. This interplay of race/ethnicity and type is deeply rooted, a filter or lens that cannot be removed from my perception and judging functions—simultaneous interwoven realities of everyday living.
However, there was another side to this, a conjunction of race/ethnicity and type that was joyful and sustaining. The cultural expression of type at a Mexican fiesta was far more embracing of my ENFJ preferences than my immediate family with its Thinking preference. I come from a very large family on my father’s side—40 first cousins, most of whom are older than me. My father and his five brothers were partners in a tortillaria and Mexican foods import business, Puentes Brothers, Inc., all during my childhood. Every summer they threw a huge picnic at a local park to celebrate the success of the business. We would reserve the largest picnic area available, complete with its own kitchen, bathrooms, and BBQ grill. My fraternal grandmother Mamita sat at a picnic bench with my Tia Julia at her side while all the grandchildren and great-grandchildren filed past in a slow parade. Each child was presented to the family matriarch for her inspection while my Tia Julia provided the child’s parentage. When it was my turn she would say, “This is Stephanie. La hija de Cuco y Panchita.” My grandmother took my face between her hands and murmured, “Que bonita,” kissed my forehead and then released me to go swimming with my cousins. All morning we played, periodically tearing through the kitchen to beg the women preparing the meal for a tortilla to munch or a taste of chicken mole. In mid-afternoon the food was presented and everyone feasted on the delicious Mexican dishes full of spice and love. When the Mariachi band began playing, my father and each of my Tios would take turns dancing with Mamita. And here, within the embrace of my large, loud, loving extended family I knew I wasn’t different at all. Here I found people who cried when they were happy, talked too much and too loudly, ate the same food, and looked just like me. In this world my race/ethnicity and type preferences were accepted and celebrated. Here I was the same.
The shared values of the extended Puentes tribe created a harmonious event I looked forward to all year long. This happy anticipation was not necessarily shared by other family members as I learned just recently when I shared a draft of this article with my sister Barbara who has ESTJ preferences. Her memory of the picnics? Too unorganized and too much family drama. Many years later she tried to organize regular family reunions but stopped after she ended up doing all the work and everybody else just showed up for the party.
The difference between these two cultural environments, my school and my extended family, one full of pain and the other full of joy, is directly tied to the dynamics of dominance and marginalization. We stratify ourselves within society by age, sex, ethnicity, religion, type, etc. and within these social hierarchies a hegemonic group exists at the top. For all these reasons, my family strongly encouraged assimilation. When I was five years old my parents moved us to a brand new tract home on the west side of San Jose where we were the only Mexican family in an all-white neighborhood. Having experienced harsh discrimination during their childhood and young adult years in Southern California, my mother and father did not want their children to suffer the same and so with all good intent they encouraged us to meld and fit in. For example, my father would bring home wonderful Mexican delicacies which we consumed—along with my mother’s admonition not to tell anybody what kind of food we were eating. Simply attempting to be like everybody else in the neighborhood could not change the fact that I was not a member of the dominant group.
I might never have moved beyond those feelings of marginalization if not for a ‘wake-up call’ when I was 19 years old. I was living in a predominantly Latino section of downtown San Jose and whenever my next door neighbor saw me he would speak to me in Spanish. I always spoke in English which prompted him to ask me one day why I didn’t speak Spanish since I was clearly Mexican. I replied with what my mother had always told me to say, “I’m not Mexican, I’m American. I was born here.” I will never forget the look on his face or what he said next. With a dismissive wave of his hand he said, “Girl, you don’t even know who you are!”
As a result of this comment I began asking questions about my family. I learned where my grandparents came from, how they came to California, how we ended up in San Jose. I became interested in diversity training and joined affinity groups at work so I could be with people who shared my social identities, my life experiences. I learned about my own personality type preferences and realized that I was not overly sensitive but that my dominant function is extraverted feeling and it is a gift. And, I became an MBTI® practitioner, armed now with both type and diversity training that allows me to explore what it means to be a Latina with ENFJ preferences.
What would I say to people who have experienced race and type bias? Begin by learning where you come from and how you were socialized to think about yourself. Find a community of people who share your experience, people you can turn to for validation and support. Then take a good look at how and what you think and feel about others. Be willing to face what you find and push through the discomfort. Acknowledging that I had spent years feeling picked on and admitting I had my own type bias towards those with Thinking preferences was difficult to do but resulted in both a better understanding of myself and better relationships with my family. Once you’ve started doing your own work and created your ‘like me’ support network, then reach out to those who are ‘different’ from you to build alliances. Whether it is across race or type preferences, working with people who are different from us is an essential part of how we grow.