Wow! What a critical point he has brought in the discussion. Oh! He is a Banerjee, a Bengali. They eat fish every day, and this is the result, sharp memory. Mr Banerjee could not help but silently chuckle to himself. This was not the first time he had heard a remark like this. He was, in fact, in deep reflection whether to thank his genes, give credit to his hard work or let the fishes walk away with all the credit. So, what if he is a doctorate from Harvard, the credit of this too, goes to the fishes! Thanks to the fish, even after finding notable success he was so grounded.
He is not alone in receiving attention for belonging to a particular group. The other day when Areeba opted for a vegetarian dish in a restaurant. Pat came the question from not one but most of her colleagues, ‘you are a Muslim, and you don’t eat nonveg?’ The alarming gaze of known faces whose belief system she had just shattered was like Arnab Goswami ‘the nation wants to know!’ The earth suddenly seemed thirsty for an answer and explaining in such a scenario was not a choice but an imperative moral duty.
Stereotyping people based on the group to which they belong can lead to mindless categorization. For instance, a man with three bold lines and a tilak on his forehead risk the fear of being perceived as a Hindu extremist who is probably biased and unaccepting of other religions. Who cares if the same fellow is an educated liberal who sees all religions with due respect and just stepped out after a spiritual moment with his God? Not to forget mentioning here, those men with beard and that small-cap over their head. The cap and the beard can do wonders. They just guise everything else about his personality, his profession, or what he is as a person. Not all such garbed men who may be a doctor, a businessman, a scientist, a doting family man get an opportunity like Shahrukh khan- to tell the world, ‘My name is khan, and I am not a terrorist.’
Forget about the common man; sometimes even celebs become a victim of stereotyping. ‘Go and stand in the economy class queue. This line is for business class travellers.’ Sudha Murthy Chairperson of Infosys Foundation was told by a lady at the Heathrow Airport in London. The lady went a step further labelling her as ‘cattle class’ perceiving her as a misfit dressed in a simple salwar kameez amidst the so-called classy people.
It’s not always adults, but even children learn to stereotype at a very young age. They learn to use stereotypes from parents, significant others, and the media. I remember how my elder sister, when in school, used to intentionally misread the words during eye test for her love for glasses. A girl with glasses was often perceived as studious. Unfortunately owing to poor luck, she was always sent back with a box of Protinex instead of spectacles.
The unconscious bias associated with stereotypical thinking often leads us to offend others. ‘When are you giving good news?’ This question is frequently asked to a married couple assuming that now since they are married, the next goal must be to have kids. The couple may have chosen to focus on their careers or maybe not to have kids. Finding this difficult to comprehend, people choose the shortcut method here too; assuming it to be a fertility issue. So how do they help now? Of course, by asking the same question again, ‘so when are you giving good news.’
Have you ever wondered why a girl meeting a prospective family for marriage is often encouraged to wear a traditional dress? Seeing the girl dressed in that way the older generation fantasize her to be that docile Amrita Rao of Vivaah movie. Sometime such prophecies do come true, other times they are left confused like Baburao of Hera Pheri. Similarly, it just takes seconds, for a few, to draw a doubtful character sketch of a girl if she is wearing a short dress.
Stereotyping deprives us of knowing a person’s true self completely, but still, people don’t abstain from it, especially when it can be fun. I am reminded of the Sikh community here. One community that always sets a benchmark for others in social service and brotherhood. But who cares when cracking those hilarious and sometimes demeaning jokes on Sardars one can temporarily get a celeb feel of being a Johnny Lever.
Stereotype make us a victim of Assumption. We forget that when we ASSUME, we make an Ass of U and ME. So next time you see a fat woman, don’t assume her to be a person who overeats. Her obesity could be due to thyroid or hormonal or other reasons. If you know someone who is visiting a psychiatrist, don’t hurry to label him crazy or psycho. Stigmatizing and stereotyping in such case can have ruinous consequences. That woman you see in hijab can be equally educated and liberated, and the person avoiding alcohol can still be cool. By judging a person based on our prejudices and stereotypes unknowingly, we end up engaging in discrimination. We all end up using stereotyping many times without our knowledge. The best way to avoid falling in its trap is to be aware of its existence when interacting with someone. To end, I am reminded of that line from the bestseller book To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee where she says “You never really understand a person until you consider things from his point of view. Until you climb inside of his skin and walk around in it.” So, when God has gifted us with the gift of ‘mind’ let’s decide not to stereotype but rather act wise by taking ample time to know a person.
Note: This article was originally published in The Asian Chronicle (http://theasianchronicle.com/engaging-in-stereotype-not-right/). IIBP has sought the author’s permission to publish the article on our website.
Dr. Farah Naqvi is a writer, academician and behavioural scientist. She started her career with Indian Institute of Management, Ahmedabad and worked with institutions like ICFAI Hyderabad, IBA Bangalore and Center for Organization Development, Hyderabad as Asst Professor. Currently, she is associated with Indian Institute of Business Psychology (IIBP) as Senior Researcher.