Breaking down the barriers of stereotyping


People of all backgrounds and cultures are susceptible to stereotyping individuals from other groups.

Few years ago, while I was visiting the United States, a native American asked me, “So you live in the desert – what’s it like to travel everywhere by camel?” Momentarily stunned, I replied, “I wouldn’t know. We upgraded to horses some time ago.”

The questioner may have been particularly misinformed, but his comment did bring to light a typical mindset at the time – Middle Eastern people were seen as overweight desert people who rode camels to work and lived in palatial mansions. This was pre-September 11, of course. These days, people from this part of the world are often regarded with even more suspicion.

Stereotypes tend to be oversimplified general impressions of any particular group of people. Some tags seem harmless enough, but when negative cultural stereotypes come into play there is potential for great harm. Some sociologists believe that stereotyping reflects a power structure in which one group in society uses labeling to keep another group ‘in its place’. But why do we do it?

Why do we stereotype?

To understand the reasons behind stereotyping, one must fully understand what the term means. A stereotype is a fixed, exaggerated and preconceived description of a certain type of person, group or society.
“Stereotypes are generalized images – they are often prejudicial, rather than factual, hence – with time and constant repetition – they become fixed in people’s minds. As a result, people often ignore the true facts, even if they offer a different perspective.”

Stereotyping can also be used as a form of rationalization, to justify an existing class structure and relationships in society. For example, holding the belief that a certain group possesses undesirable traits may serve to justify poor treatment of that group.

Stereotypes tend to be oversimplified general impressions of any particular group of people. Some tags seem harmless enough, but when negative cultural stereotypes come into play there is potential for great harm.

Such stereotyping can directly lead to xenophobic impressions of a particular group. Stereotypes are often created after a single encounter with a person from a particular group. If such an encounter involves a bad experience, it can cause fear and anxiety, leading to xenophobia – fearing or disliking foreign people.

Two factors that seem to lead to stereotyping behavior are past experiences and the environment. Humans tend to stereotype, mainly because past experiences are given more importance than the person we are judging. Also, most stereotyping begins at a very young age. Parents and teachers can play a big role when it comes to perpetuating stereotypes.

Experts say stereotyping can lead to bullying, teasing and peer pressure. Young children can become hostile after being treated negatively. This can also cause them to hold a negative view of the world at an early age, which can result in depression and aggression.

Breaking the myth

Stereotypes are present in almost every aspect of daily life. It can be age-related (‘Youngsters today have no respect for their elders’), sexual in nature (‘Men want just one thing’) or cultural (‘Americans are more brash and loud than the English’). The list is never-ending.

A recent US National Institutes of Health study found that common national stereotypes, such as ‘Americans are pushy while the English are more reserved’, were baseless.
A survey of 40,000 adults from 49 cultures showed that the Swiss were most open to new ideas in art and music (the opposite is commonly believed), that the British were not as introverted as previously thought, and that the Czechs did not need anger management classes but, in fact, came across as a modest and humble group.

With the UAE being an ethnic melting pot including people from more than 150 different countries, stereotypes here are more geographically based than cultural. Just think of all the ‘Jumeirah Jane’ and ‘Abu Dhabi drivers’ stories you have heard.

A housewife living n Jumeirah says, “When I first moved to Dubai six years ago, I was highly amused by the term ‘Jumeirah Jane’ (supposedly with  kids, a garden villa and a four-wheel-drive car.) But, over time I started to find it grating that people regarded me as a helpless expat wife with nothing to do but attend endless coffee mornings and salon appointments while complaining about the house help.”

Abu Dhabi national commented, “it’s unfair that people keep pointing fingers at drivers from the capital when it comes to road accidents on Sheikh Zayed Road. “Statistically, we have fewer road accidents than Dubai,” he points out.

Changing your mindset

Perception is all in the mind, but people’s viewpoints can be changed in simple ways. It is important for individuals to examine the assumptions they make about others and to ask themselves where those assumptions come from.

Asking questions such as ‘where is the evidence for this?’ can be helpful. Are your assumptions based on personal experience, on things you heard from others,  from the TV or movies or heard at school? Could some of your negative impressions of others be wrong? Getting to know individuals personally can help change negative views and stereotypes.

If you are the one being stereotyped, attempt to gain the trust of those who are stereotyping you – this can help change perceptions.

Finally, change your own attitude.

The role of TV and cinema

Movies ans TV over the last decade have often exacerbated cultural biases. There are countless examples of Arabs being portrayed in a less than flattering light.

Fortunately, there have been some positives too, that in some ways helped to change negative mass perception.

The Dubai International Film Festival has attempted to address negative stereotyping of Arabs and Muslims in mainstream American cinema.


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