How to Avoid Stereotyping

Prejudice and Stereotyping

by Jayaram V

Many people do not practice yoga because they believe it belongs to a different religion. A hundred years ago many people in Europe and USA believed that the practice of yoga was harmful to mental health. Sometimes, you may come across people who may not even hide their resentment if you do not look like them or give them the impression that you are from a foreign country.

Many people in the USA have a problem pronouncing foreign names and laugh at them because they have a mental blockage to accept racial diversity or pronounce any name that does sound like a Christian name. I often face the problem when I speak to customer service people on the phone or visit local institutions. I have to repeat my name several times, even though my first name is not very difficult to pronounce.

Every day, my first name is pronounced by millions of people, including illiterate ones, in several countries from all wakes of life. It is part of Indian literature, culture, poetry, and songs for over 2000 years. In many parts of India it is used as a greeting word or a common expression like hello, Jesus, or hi. Yet, many educated people in the USA cannot pronounce it. It is equally true that when white Americans visit foreign countries in Asia or Middle East they face similar problems, not only with their names and cultural traits but also with their nationality.

Few years ago, when I was working at a call center, some elderly people would refuse to talk to me. When they heard my voice, they would ask me to connect them to a manager because they thought that I was speaking from India or far east and they did not want to discuss with me their financial problems. Fortunately, such customers were few. Most people I called preferred talking to me and would even tell me that in future they would like to speak to me only.

Prejudice and stereotyping are not particular to any race, creed or nation. People indulge in it almost everywhere. When I was In India, I had a similar problem. I was working in a north Indian state, whereas I was from South. Although my first name was Jayaram, people would call me Jayaraman because that was a popular south Indian name. Since I was from South, many people assumed that I was a southerner, who ate staple south Indian food, wore traditional south Indian dresses at home, and belonged to an orthodox Hindu family. It was a different matter that I had a mixed background. Since my parents lived in the North, I grew up both in both north and south and learned to speak fluent Hindi and even local dialects.

You cannot say that such behavior arises from ignorance or lack of education. I have seen even film stars, politicians, well-educated people, university professors, and celebrities showing it in their public utterances. Prejudice and stereotype thinking have been a part of Indian culture for centuries. Caste system and linguistic chauvinism, for which India is notorious, are the result of stereotyping only. In one of the social gatherings, a teenager even asked me curiously why south Indians did not wear shoes and other footwear in their houses and wondered whether it was a cultural thing because people ate their meals sitting on the ground instead of at the dinner tables.

Obviously, that girl never visited south India and saw how people lived there. She probably picked up those prejudices from her parents, friends, or relations. She also did not seem to visit any villages in the North to know that eating habits and lifestyles were influenced more by economic conditions and literacy levels rather than cultural and geographic factors. She was also unaware that many Indians would not allow people to walk into their homes wearing footwear, because they were usually made of animal skins and were deemed unclean and inauspicious.

Such prejudices are universal and common in most cultures. Sometime ago, in Soviet Russia there was an attempt to ban the Bhagavadgita because a section of people believed that the scripture promoted violence. The real reason was of course different. In countries like U.K., Germany, Greece, Soviet Russia and Australia, racial tensions are on the increase as the local demographics have been undergoing rapid transformation. They get worse when these countries go through economic recession, as the locals attribute their economic plight to the immigrants.

Few years ago I watched a video about Soviet Russia, in which the local youth would pick on immigrants walking on the sidewalks and beat them violently to drive home the message that they were unwanted. In Europe, few years ago a Norwegian extremist belonging to a fascist group gunned down 77 people because he thought they did not deserve to live in his country. You can see a similar trend in other places too. Many Muslim fanatics target Hindus and Christians in Islamic states because they are prejudiced against the minority communities who practice a different religion and preserve their traditions.

Prejudice has played an important role in the history of human civilization since the earliest times. Wars were fought because of the irrational beliefs and prejudices people held against one another. We know that, apart from other reasons, the second World War was caused by many racial and ideological prejudices. It was not that such prejudices prevailed only in Germany or Italy. Hitler had many sympathizes and secret admirers all over Europe and in many parts of the USA. In the end, although the Allies won and lessons were learned, the War bred newer prejudices and racial tensions in various parts of the world. Swastika, an auspicious Hindu symbol and the Sanskrit word Arya, which originally meant a person of noble origin, became tainted forever as symbols of fascism and oppression.

I believe even the animals practice group loyalty and prefer staying with their kind. Put a turkey in a flock of peacocks and the turkey would die of hunger and loneliness. Stereotyping helps the animals in their survival to find their prey and sense their rivals. It helps them to live in groups and communities, hunt in packs, and find better protection from other animals.

Stereotyping is common to all nations and peoples. It helps us to deal with the complexities of life. However, when it is used for wrong purposes, it becomes a social malady, which makes people either victims or victimizers. From boardrooms to dinner tables, and from the most powerful and advanced nations in the world to the most underdeveloped ones, you will find groups holding against groups, tribe holding against tribes, nations fighting nations, and people staying divided based on religion, race or political ideology due to the irrational beliefs and prejudices they hold despite contrary evidence. Thousands of people die every year in various parts of the world due to communal, caste and tribal conflicts. People lose jobs or find it difficult to find jobs because of it. We can trace many problems and conflicts of the world today to the prejudices that people entertain in their minds.

Stereotyping means

Stereotyping means holding a general or fixed belief or notion about others without proof or validity. We are all familiar with it, even though some might not have heard the word. The habit of stereotyping is not particular to a group, nation or race. Human beings tend to stereotype and generalize their perceptions and experiences in dealing with the complexity of human life. They do it almost mechanically to make sense of the unfamiliar and the unknown and minimize the anxiety, fear and insecurity arising from facing the unfamiliar and the unknown. They rely upon stereotyping to make sense of the world and people, measure themselves, or to find security and social comfort in a group identity.

In other words, stereotyping is a natural tendency of the human mind to minimize effort and find mental shortcuts to process information and draw quick conclusions. Over generalization, over simplification, selective perception, irrational beliefs, ignorance, faulty learning, immaturity are some of the reasons why people tend to stereotype.

Stereotyping helps us to minimize the effort involved in decision making and problem solving and relate to others in specific ways. We stereotype not only those who are different from us, but also those who are similar to us. We assume certain personality types are either superior or inferior, friendly or hostile, intelligence or ignorant, reliable or unreliable, aggressive or docile.

We form both positive and negative opinions about people based upon it, and both may equally affect our ability to think and act rationally. Some conclusions arising from stereotyping may be right and even helpful to deal with the complexity of the world. However, in most cases, stereotyping and prejudiced thinking lead to irrational behavior, and logical fallacies. It also limits our ability to deal with people and situations effectively, with maturity and insight

Suggestions to avoid stereotyping

The following suggestions are helpful to guard ourselves against stereotype thinking.

1. Respect individuals: Treat each person as an individual rather than as part of a group. Do not assume that people will have certain traits or behavior simply because they belong to certain groups or nationalities.

2. Respect the individuality: Each person is unique. He may share some features with others, but his life and behavior are uniquely shaped by circumstances. Therefore focus upon the individuality of each person you meet, and what distinguishes him or her from the rest.

3. Respect the humanity: All people, irrespective of their color or creed, belong to the same human race. Our destinies are deeply intertwined. We are the only intelligent beings in the known universe. Therefore, treat people with respect as the children of God or of earth.

4. Be rational: Think and act rationally with objectivity when you deal with people or judge their behavior.

5. Avoid assumptions: Do not jump to conclusions or make assumption when you do not know people well. Avoid the temptation to make up information based upon your feelings rather than facts.

6. Appreciate the diversity: Imagine a world, where everyone looks alike and thinks alike. You will have no chance of being recognized or asserting your individuality. You are able to leave a mark upon the world and establish your identity because of the diversity that prevails in our world. Therefore, appreciate the diversity you find in the world and people around you. Contemplate upon how it enriches your life and contributes to your welfare. Appreciate and the role they played by different people and diverse cultures in shaping the human civilization.

7. Gather more information: Try to know more about people whom you tend to stereotype. Study their history, social and cultural background and examine rationally whether you prejudices are justified.

8. See yourself in others: Although people may belong to different social and cultural backgrounds and speak different languages, they share many common features and behaviors, and experience the same emotions. They are also driven by the same desires and concerns. Therefore, look for areas of agreement with others, and treat them the way you would like to be treated.

9. Cleanse your thinking: Make a list of your irrational beliefs and prejudices and examine them according to your personal experience and observation. See how far they are true and valid. Also, analyze your past to know how developed certain beliefs and prejudices and how you were influenced by your parents and peers in your childhood.

10. Learn from others: Prejudices and stereotyping prevent many people from learning from others. You can learn a lot from others, even if they are not as educated or knowledgeable as you are. The world offers you innumerable opportunities to learn from others, and you should wisely make use of them.

11. Expand your self-awareness: When you know more about you, you will develop better insight into human behavior and appreciate others with greater tolerance and understanding.

12. Practice compassion: All people deserve your sympathy because they all suffer in their own individual ways. Whether they are rich or poor, young or old, everyone who lives upon earth is vulnerable to innumerable hardships. Treat everyone with compassion, tolerance, and understanding.

13. Know your boundaries: You may protect your interests, and act with social responsibility, but you must know that neither the country nor the community with which you may identify belongs to you. You are just one of the billions of people who live upon earth for a short item and disappear forever. You may enrich them with your actions and service, but you cannot assume any special privileges for yourself based upon your birth or background. You can stand for yourself and defend your rights and actions, without infringing upon the rights of others to live their lives according to their vision and values.

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