Why Do People Always Assume I’m Dumb?
Lately, I’ve been noticing that people somehow just seem to think I’m dumb.
I don’t know if this has been happening my whole life, and I am just now noticing it, or if this is something new that’s only started happening recently. Either way, though, it drives me crazy, and I can’t figure out how to turn it around.
What is it about me that makes people think I’m a bobblehead when they look at me? Is it because I’m a woman? Is it because I am on the younger side? Is it because I have blond hair? Is it because I wear makeup and people think “girly-girls” can’t be smart? Honestly, I have no idea.
It happens about the most mundane of things. Once, at a coffee shop, I was trying to stab a straw through the cap on my drink and accidentally opened it from the wrong side. It was mere seconds before a man behind me shouted, “Ope, ya got the wrong side! Flip it up!” As if I couldn’t figure it out myself (which I did — right as he was trying to counsel me on a straw. A STRAW.)
It happened in New York City when I was traveling with a huge group of people and no one knew how to navigate the subway. I, a huge NYC lover, city girl, and experienced traveler, tried to tell them the closest and most efficient route to take. We were meeting another group of people for a Broadway show in Times Square. And guess what? These people doubted me, insisted on taking another train, and got us stuck near Coney Island. Go figure. When we finally made it to the show and talked to the people who made it there on time, guess what route they took? The one I originally recommended.
It happened just yesterday when I was having a debate with friends about everything going on with the Supreme Court. I was talking about my frustration with so many conservative justices being appointed. One of my friends’ roommates started interjecting me and proceeded to inform me that there are no “conservative” or “liberal” justices because their job is to look at the Constitution impartially. And even though she was only half-correct (because there are plenty of justices who depend on personal beliefs even though they shouldn’t) I gave her the benefit of the doubt. I then began to elaborate on the different ways of interpreting the Constitution (pragmatism, textualism, originalism, etc.) to explain why there are seemingly conservative vs. liberal justices. Keep in mind that this is me, a political science student who has studied politics for years, just explaining a very basic concept. This woman then looked me in the eyes and goes, “Not really. I have no idea what you’re talking about, but you must be confused. The Supreme Court’s job is to interpret the Constitution. They’re part of a branch called the judicial branch and they have checks and balances with the legislative and executive branches. Those are Congress and the President.” I pretty much just scoffed. Obviously she had no idea what I was trying to say and just thought I didn’t understand the fundamentals of our government. I was pretty infuriated.
Now that I notice it, I notice it happening every. day. And even in social situations, or intellectual conversations, when I simply ask a clarifying question about something (not requesting an explanation of the topic) people tend to delve into a whole session of explaining what things are to brief me on the concept, when all I really wanted was to ask a pointed question about it or even gather their opinion on something.
So why is my curiosity always mistaken for stupidity? Why do people assume I’m dumb, even when I haven’t asked them a question about something? What is it about me that just screams to people, HEY, this girl is gullible and clueless! even when I try so ruthlessly to suggest the contrary?
I really don’t know the answer, but I think I can say this: it’s dependent upon the various stereotypes that we box each other into in society. As it stands, I already have one unfair stereotype going for me — the dumb blonde stereotype — and that may very well be why everyone seems to think I’m super dense.
Obviously, people’s bias about my “dumb blondeness” is nothing compared to the oppression and downright discrimination that many other groups have endured over the course of centuries. I don’t claim to understand even the half of what they have been through, as stereotyping is not the same thing as discrimination. I can only imagine the weight of what they experience daily.
Still, in general, I wish that people could understand the value of others’ intelligence and offerings to the world. Just because someone looks a certain way, acts a certain way, or subscribes to certain parts of culture doesn’t give you the right to assume anything about their education, knowledge, or general value. When I tell someone something or offer a piece of insight, it would be nice to just once have the person say, “OMG, thanks for your input!” or elaborate on my ideas rather than just talking over me, shooting me down, or questioning my expertise.
I’d love to be able to attribute this dilemma to my blondness or my identity as a woman, but I’m still unsure of the cause. Is it me or is it my appearance? What is it that gives people the notion that I am a head-in-the-clouds airhead with no intellectual legitimacy? What is it that gives people the idea that I shouldn’t be taken seriously? Maybe this is really just a personal problem that I should delve into solving, but I have a few ideas of where this bias is rooted.
In pop culture, especially in movies and TV shows, it’s always the women who are portrayed as dumb (particularly the blondes). It’s the classic “dumb blonde” trope that everyone is able to recognize. Take Sharpay in High School Musical or Karen from Mean Girls. (Obviously, there are countless others that I could name, but these are just a few commonly-known ones.) Some of us grew up with these movies. We are used to watching these girls say dumb things and be clueless, void of common sense. We are used to laughing at the screen when they say something completely dense. And we are used to watching other people blame them for failures, throwing them under the bus, and pushing aside every opinion that they offer. In essence, we grew up stomping all over these types of women and assuming that they offer no value except as comedic devices and pretty things to look at. We’ve grown used to picturing these types of women when someone mentions the word “dumb” or “bobblehead” because they are the face of that stereotype. We even have a word to describe them: bimbos. So is it really a surprise that we’ve transferred some of these habits and notions to real life?
Admittedly, I did this when I was a kid. I was aware of the dumb blonde stereotype, but I didn’t realize how deeply it is etched into society, and how often people lack the ability to separate fictional portrayals of characters from real-life people. But now I am the object of those pent-up stereotypes. I am the face that people imagine when the thought of a “dumb blonde” crosses their mind. I am the one that people shoot down or interrupt when I speak. I am the one being constantly second-guessed and looked down on. Sure, I’m college-educated, well-read, and pursuing a career in education. But stereotypes are not easily deconstructed. They run deep.
One of the most important things that I’ve learned in my adulthood is that the images we see in our childhood matter. Childhood matters. I would argue that a lot of our biases are unconscious, and they come from our consumption of pop culture — especially as children before we had any awareness of the prejudices that we were forming. It presents itself in various contexts: the lack of racial diversity in children’s books and public education curricula, the white-washed historical perspectives taught in American schools (and constantly defending the oppressor, even in the case of war, death, abuse, and genocide), the overwhelming majority of white cisgender men in politics and positions of power, the abundance of dumb blondes and smart Asians and reckless boys portrayed in shows and movies, and even quintessential protagonists like “the girl next door” and the “macho” man who saves her (I wrote an article about this, linked below.)
Opinion: Why “The Girl Next Door” is Incredibly Destructive to Society
“The Girl Next Door” has been the quintessential female protagonist for ages, but this very image is damaging to women…
Our society is waaaaaay too developed, diverse, and dynamic for us to still be excusing harmful narratives like the dumb blonde trope (and all of the other examples I described above, like white-washed history, the girl next door, and misogynistic politics). Whether it’s overt or subtle, frequent or occasional, it’s not OK, and we shouldn’t stand idly by and accept these things. We need to confront them as they happen, and demand that people address these stereotypes and work to dismantle them.
Returning back to the theme of my personal life, I’m still thinking of a good comeback to the people who continuously shrug me off and assume that I am unintelligent. Maybe, though, the best comeback I can give is, “Hey, why aren’t you able to trust me?” or, “What is it about me that gives you the audacity to doubt everything that I say?” I don’t want to punish people for what seems like a harmless, unconscious habit. But I do want to get some clarity (both for myself and for them) and try to get to the bottom of this. If I can do that, I can start adequately responding to it each time it happens.
And in the meantime, I will do everything that I can to call out those other harmful narratives when I see them. Because some of them do have a clear source and a clear solution, and people continuously ignore them because it’s easy to claim superiority over others (however that manifests).
But truly, we deserve better. And my overarching hope is that the next generation will grow up with more awareness than we did and have every piece of courage that we have lacked. My hope is that we can keep raising the future to be a place full of change and healthy confrontation. Maybe then we can finally get the world that we all deserve.