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What is stereotyping? “A rigid mental image that summarizes whatever is believed to be typical about a group” (Robertson 1987). It’s not as simple as it sounds or as it is used in everyday life. Due to our lack of interest in analyzing and understanding information we utilize the short cut called stereotyping. “Stereotyping is as natural to people as thinking itself” (Longstreet, 1978, p. 10). Life of people has become very complex and difficult and that has led to the increase in misinterpretations and wrong ideas about different groups of people. Stereotypes are inflexible and they are learned quickly from family, friends, coworkers and the media. It leads to inflexible categories on our minds and hearts. The most powerful source of stereotypes is our own negative experiences.
I have been stereotyped many times by the people on my way back home – on railway station, school, by taxi drivers etc. However, I never cared what people thought about me being an Indian because that used to distract my mind. There is this one incident that my friend happened to tell me, just recently, when I came to the United States. This incident changed my attitude towards I, being an Indian and people stereotyping me on this basis.
In high school, my friend wanted to be a member of Women Scout Club. They offered scholarships and even participated in many interesting activities for the welfare of women community as a whole. There were only white women in the club. When she showed her interest in being the part of the club, the President of the club tried to off track her and gave all different kinds of meaningless reasons why she couldn’t join. Even then she showed her deep interest in joining. Finally, the club president told her that she couldn’t join them because they didn’t want any Indians in the club. She told her that Indians are mean, shallow and cheaters. They are selfish and don’t have any sense of respect or dignity towards other members of the club. My friend just stood there – stunned and not knowing what to speak. She couldn’t believe what she said. When she told me about this even I was shocked and confused. I couldn’t believe her agony towards the Indian people. That’s stereotyping. She, without analyzing her thoughts or broadening her point of view, had developed a rigid idea of Indians being cheaters – on the basis of some negative experience she may had come across in the past How can anyone develop such a rigid ideology about some particular group of people on the basis of limited knowledge and experience? Just because one person is a cheater, it does not mean all are. Just because one person takes advantage of status and not respect fellow group members doesn’t mean that all will. Just because one Indian person is shallow does not mean all are.
This incident has changed me a bit. Now when I am with people belonging to other group or community, I become conscious the way I talk or behave. Even if I know that whatever I am doing is right, it gives me a sense of being selfish, shallow or disrespectful. I have lost my confidence a little bit and that affects my work and relations with other people. Stereotyping has understandably earned a bad reputation. It sacrifices the uniqueness of individuals due to narrow imagination. Negative stereotypical ideas of other groups prevent effective communication that lead to prejudice and discrimination.
Stereotypes prevent us from accurately perceiving people. So we shouldn’t judge a group based on one experience and learn to set aside our own stereotypes.