Are there such things as “positive stereotypes”? Especially when said as a compliment, and with good intentions? Can we also say that stereotypes are just a bunch of words usually said jokingly, and shouldn’t hurt those who receive them? Are people being overly sensitive?

I was once giving a presentation at a high school, where I talked about stereotypes and biases. This was not a small feat, provided that I was there for the whole school day, speaking with different classes, as they came from one class to another.

In one session, I would have an energetic, very hyper group, and in another, I would have the quietest students. But, knowing high schoolers can run out of steam very fast, I was cognizant that my morning presentation wouldn’t be the same as my mid-day and or afternoon sessions. So my presentations, especially in the afternoon, needed to be more energizing, interactive and fun!

Now, when I say interactive, I counted on the students’ voluntary participation. And some students were indeed very participative, while others took the opportunity to nap!

My topic had an appeal to a certain demographic in the classes I was presenting to. It explored how some students were treated by their peers, because of their differences. At one time in my presentation, there was an opportunity to raise some of the stereotypes people use jokingly, but that still can have a negative impact. Here are some of the stereotypes the students said were often used.

  1. Drunken Irish: One student from an Irish background said, “I’m Irish, and people always make comments about Irish people drinking all the time.” But then she went on to say that indeed in her family, Alcoholism was a problem. So, when she hears people making stereotypical jokes about Irish drinking, she doesn’t consider it offensive, because that’s what she has experienced in her family. However, just because someone might experience too much drinking to be true in some Irish communities, doesn’t mean every single Irish person drinks too much.
  2. Asian Students Are Smarter: Another student of Asian background talked about the stereotype she experienced in school being of the “smart Asian.” She said that because of this general assumption that Asian students are smarter, or are hard-workers, she was afraid to ask for help in her math class. And when one day she did ask for help, people shamed her by saying, “You are supposed to be the one helping others in math, not asking for help.” She shared that for a long time, she kept her struggles in math to herself, because of this stereotype. When I asked other students of Asian background, “How does this stereotype make you feel?” One Asian student said, “I love it!” So, as you see, stereotypes can affect people differently.

Many students took the opportunity to share the stereotypical things they’ve heard, and how they were affected by them, depending on who they are and where they are in life.

My job was then to open the students’ minds to see how those stereotypes affect their classmates and schoolmates; and what they could do to reduce them. Most importantly, I showed them the difference between a stereotype and a bias, and how these two are interwoven in propagating injustices and inequities. I had so much fun discussing with those young people, and hearing from their point of view, whether they were directly impacted by the stereotypes or not.

One student raised his hand and said, “but stereotypes should not be hurtful, it’s just a bunch of words! I think people are often too sensitive.”

I said, “Yes, it’s a bunch of words. But when those words are offensive to you or your family and can prevent you from being treated the same as the rest, they’re not just a bunch of words.” Then I added, “words have power. So, be mindful of how you use them.”

As an African, I’ve heard quite a long list of stereotypes towards Africa as a continent, and towards the African people, and or black people in general. Some of the black students in my sessions raised the “African people are always late” as one of the stereotype examples. Now, as an African, I know some Africans have a different relationship with time. There is even a joke about being on “African time.” While this might be true, not all Africans are always late. For one, I pride myself on being on time, and hate being late for my appointments.

All things considered, when you are on the receiving end of the bunch of words, whether intentionally or not, you also start developing a thick skin. Because if I were to get offended by every ignorant remark, I wouldn’t be able to do the work I do and love, which is to bridge the gaps between our diverse and multicultural communities. I am a firm believer that as a society, we are not all that different, and we can do better.

Some of those stereotypes are simply ignorant remarks. I recently heard from a friend of mine who was told, “You’re African? But you have beautiful features! (It would have been a compliment if it weren’t preceded by the “but” little word). People can have beautiful or ugly features regardless of their race or nationalities.

Other times, the stereotypes are belittling jokes that poke fun of an individual or a group’s race, ethnicity, gender, sexual orientation, diverse ability, religion, nationality, age, socio-economic status or political affiliation. For example, when my husband first arrived in North America, one guy asked him, “Do you guys have houses in Africa?” He was serious and really wanted to know.

“No, we don’t have houses in Africa.” My husband replied. “Everyone there lives in a tree. As a matter of fact, the ambassador of your country gets the biggest tree of all, because he has an important job!”

I’m not even sure the guy understood my husband’s mild irritation, but he didn’t press him for more questions. Here is what I say to those who still want to know whether they have houses in Africa. No, they don’t have houses in Africa. So, when you go to Africa, you get a tree, you get a tree, you get a tree…. everybody gets a tree😊

Obviously, stereotyping is an over-generalization about a group. I understand there are countries in Africa with extreme poverty of course. But assuming all Africans still live like in the Stone Age is pretty ignorant and insensitive. Even when the stereotype has some truth in it, using it as a rule of thumb in your decision-making process can hurt those whose background is affiliated with the group.

From Stereotype to Bias: Stereotypes would be less harmful, if they didn’t engender bias. Most injustices are committed when there is a bias. The definition of bias is a prejudice in favor of, or against a person or a group compared with another. A bias can be favorable or unfavorable. Let’s see an example of a stereotype becoming a bias:

  • Stereotype: Boys are better in math than girls.
  • Bias: When hiring in a job that requires math skills, men are likely to be favored.

Therefore, a bias is a stereotype in application. The preconceived notion about a person, a culture, or a certain group of people can blindside even the best-intentioned person.

So, how can we combat stereotypes and biases? Please share your opinions and perspectives to enrich the conversation and make our world a better place for all.