What Does It Mean to Be a “Typical” Anything?

December 31, 2019Kerry Leaf

I figured it out. The word I wrestle with and struggle to explain to disagreeing friends. The concept that brings out my anger, frustration, and vulnerability. Seven letters that lean on assumptions and pre-judgment.


Living in Chicago for decades now, when I’m away from here and am asked where I’m from, I hear myself consistently answering: “Originally from New York, but now in Chicago.”

I do that for two reasons: One, New York (and specifically Long Beach) is ever in my heart and soul. Two, I’m defending against the real possibility that someone might say a disparaging remark about New Yorkers in the course of casual conversation.

I’d like to avoid that battle. Maybe they’ll be more cautious if they know where I was born.

Trust me. This isn’t built of paranoia but rather of repeated life experiences. So often, while living in my “new” hometown of 40+ years, I have heard someone say, “You know, a typical New Yorker.”

I still haven’t learned to restrain myself. “And what is a typical New Yorker?” I ask. The debate ensues.

Does it matter that I have generally found New Yorkers to be warm, friendly, empathic, and ready to laugh? I too can generalize, defensively!

When I first visited the 9/11 Memorial Pools, I noticed the One World Trade Center building. I approached the towering figure of a security guard wearing a serious expression, and I asked if people worked in that building.

When he replied affirmatively, I said how difficult that must be, for employees to look out their windows at what once was, at the memory of the overwhelming tragedy. He answered that he felt differently: that it’s wonderful that life goes on and that the employees have these beautiful memorials to gaze upon.

And then I cried. Big tears. His response? “Get over here. You need a hug.” A second security guard summoned me to her for a hug as well. They are New Yorkers.

So what’s a “typical” New Yorker? A typical Israeli? A typical Baby Boomer? A typical millennial? A typical Jewish person? A typical immigrant? A typical member of any political party? A typical gender-related characteristic?

Why is it “typical” that we choose to short-cut our language with stereotypes and generalizations?

Why do we resist diving under the surface of labels?

Why do we choose to be dismissive?

Why do we pre-judge and allow implicit bias to distort our vision?

As I enter another new year, I strive to embrace and act upon our Jewish values of inclusivity and equity. Perhaps we can all resolve to actively practice the principles of openness and fairness while we celebrate uniqueness.

Though we may be creatures of familiarity and comfort, perhaps we can fight against type and not fall on the sword of assumptions. Maybe we can grow to appreciate that hearing each other’s personal narratives will break down barriers and clichés – and get us one step closer to building a world of compassion, justice, and wholeness.

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