Let’s paint a picture.
You’re sitting in a small waiting room at a train station in a global, multicultural city like, say not Charleston, South Carolina, and there are people of different ethnicity around you – an African American man reading a book, a couple of white ladies listening to something on their respective iPhones, an Asian couple wearing matching Adidas sneakers with a very cute very chubby baby sleeping in a pram in front of them, and a Pakistani (or maybe Indian – let’s say South Asianish?) woman in her late 50’s.
You’re scrolling through pretty photographs of everyone in the world who has a better life than you on Instagram when suddenly you smell a strong spicy, garlicky scent emanate from somewhere in the room.
Instant reaction – before you look up to see who has opened up the Tupperware of spicy curry- what comes to your mind?
(If you're honest you'll admit:) You think about that Pakistani lady in the corner and wonder why she had to open her lunch in a small contained waiting room where the smell is going to sneak into everyone’s hair and luggage.
Let’s wipe away this sketch and come up with another one.
You turn a corner and see that someone’s thrown their rather giant plastic cup of Coca Cola outside a perfectly usable trash can. The white cup lies broken on its side, its transparent lid and yellow-striped straw having slipped off like an old man’s toupee, just to the side, and a small puddle of brown liquid slowly turning into a lake for mice. You look up and see a young man with a baseball cap and very low-slung cargo pants walking a few feet ahead, you barely notice the older lady with white hair and a cane cross from this pavement onto the other side – does your mind automatically label the young man as the coke-spilling culprit?
Is that us stereotyping Pakistanis and young people?
Is it wrong to do that?
Factually wrong or morally wrong?
Maybe it is just a harmless working of our mind based on our experiences and actual facts, such as Pakistani cuisine involves a lot of garlic, and young people tend to consume Coca Cola more than 75-year-old women?
I studied Social Work in the US a few years ago, and there were definitely times in the program when I chose not to say anything for fear of hurting someone, or something. We were tightly fenced in by the tall looming poles of political correctness and you had to choose your words carefully or simply not share a thought or sentiment because you weren’t up to date with a swiftly changing vocabulary, with words introduced to replace other words that had been rendered too callous by society because of the tones in which they were uttered and the circumstances and sentences they were added to.
I understand the importance of language and the role it plays in creating and perpetuating harmful beliefs and customs. But I also believe in a bit of forgiveness, and coming from a society such as ours, I think it is important to have a sense of humor, and be able to take a joke and laugh at things about myself that ring (perhaps only partially) true. I admit it is a fine balance and I also acknowledge that this balance is different for different people, something that annoys or angers or at times just disappoints me (such as people using the word ‘raped’ to replace the word ‘defeated’ while referring to the result of some sport; the phrase ‘make me a sandwich, bitch’ no matter how jolly the tone in which it’s uttered, the word ‘bitch’ itself – and how it pains me when other women use it …
Maybe we just need to read more and expand our vocabulary, understand that hey, there are actually words out there to convey that exact sentiment, that precise idea).
But at the same time, not being offended by the more innocuous stereotypes. Let's take the one about Punjabis being loud, because, I mean I can remember our large family dinners at restaurants where as kids we didn’t notice and then as teenagers we cringed because of the raucous laughter that erupted and caused everyone at all the other tables to stare at us (or so it seemed) – and now, as sophisticated mature adults (ha!), we’ve accepted, owned and even come to love.
To come back to what I was actually thinking a while ago, is it wrong to have stereotypes or is it inevitable and sometimes even useful? Because often, stereotypes don’t just arise out of nothing. They’re based on actual experiences and facts, at least partially.
And when you think about it, really, it is just how our minds work – our past experiences, our friends and family’s stories about their experiences, social media, old-fashioned newspapers and giant billboards, everything around us shapes our thoughts and helps create ideas that we store in neat compartments in our minds, almost forgetting that these are creations, taking them as innate, super truths that have always existed.
I saw this really interesting Ted Talk (link given below) and the speaker explains how these preconceived notions help us function efficiently in society.
So let’s move away from preconceived notions about people and ethnicity and nationalities and think of things like preconceived notions about objects such as umbrellas (they help us stay somewhat dry in rain) and sneakers (they make long walks more fun), to our ideas about activities like painting (linked to creativity) and kick-boxing (strength, power). Our preconceived notions about bosses and how to talk to them, of queuing in England compared to queuing in Pakistan, of shopping in Sunday Bazaar in Karachi as opposed to shopping in Dolmen or a shopping mall in Dubai (how much money will you take, will you bargain, what are you looking to shop for?).
How about preconceived notions of neighbourhoods? Is it stereotyping if we think it is more important to lock your car in Karachi than in Islamabad or is it simply being smart? It’s a relative example, because these days you should lock your car anywhere in Pakistan but you get the drift?
We almost always have a preconceived notion that jumps up involuntarily, ready to guide our thoughts and actions.
It is just how our minds work.
Then is it right to blame one another for stereotyping others? I mean, everyone does it.
I will put forward a cautious ‘no’ (it’s not right to blame people for stereotyping) and quickly add in a ‘not always’.
There are situations innocuous like moths – for example, if an elderly person gets onto the bus and you get up to give them your seat (based on the stereotype that elderly people find it more difficult to stand in a wobbly bus for long periods of time). Or buying a doll for your friend’s 4-year-old daughter even though you’ve never met her (based on the stereotype that the little girl will prefer a doll in a frilly dress more than a small plastic baseball bat).
The trouble, of course, is when we use stereotypes to pin people down or put them where we think they belong. So on one hand, you take the doll for your friend’s little girl but she tosses it aside and takes out her toy trains to run them up and down the coffee table, and you say, ‘but girls don’t play with trains!’. Prejudice leads to people expecting they’re going to talk to a man when they call for an electrician or a woman when they ring up a doctor’s receptionist. Prejudice leads to men giving more weight to their son’s opinion than their daughter’s, prejudice leads to husbands cutting off their wife’s sentence, prejudice leads to expecting less of children belonging to a certain ethnicity or race, prejudice leads to choosing a CV over others because of the name on it and the connotations the name holds – Arabic, Persian or someone nice and sweet called Jill?
At a more insidious level, these stereotypes help support systems of patriarchy and racism (and all the other –isms). They construct a world in which a woman will automatically be paid less than a man for the same job (stereotypes of women as inferior, weaker, less intelligent than men – which knowing all the women I know in my life and all the men I know, really does astound me. I mean. Please.), a country where a black man committing a crime will get a more serious sentence than a white man committing the same act… It’s the same mode of thinking that will lead a passenger on a plane to report another passenger talking in a loud voice just because the latter is brown-skinned and speaking Arabic, and the same mode of thinking that will lead the airline personnel to kick the brown-skinned person off the plane.
Stereotypes, in this case, can be quite dangerous.
The TED Talk I mentioned above is along these lines – listen to https://www.ted.com/talks/paul_bloom_can_prejudice_ever_be_a_good_thing for a conversation about when and how stereotypes can be effective and how to contain them through reason. It’s quite fascinating to delve into our natural predisposition to prejudice.
I’m guilty of doing it like anyone else but I do try to question myself and my thoughts and that helps.
There’s also something about people who are blatant breaches to stereotypes – a woman in a hijab pulling deeply on a rolled cigarette, a man in his late 60s with a ‘Game of Thrones’ ringtone on his phone, a little boy happily picking out a pink-coloured dinosaur as his favourite toy, a husband bringing his wife a cup of tea – and I always feel happy when I see them, as if they’re doing me a secret favor, jostling others out of their hackneyed ways of thinking, grabbing the neatly-stored away prejudices in people’s minds and tossing them away, forcing them to recognize uniqueness and individuality ...
I guess the rambling essay is just about that - rely on stereotypes when you need to, but just know you're doing it and be open to challenges to your notions and accept your mistakes, and when in doubt - instead of assuming, just ask!