Unlearning stereotypes

In Opinion

The year was 1992 and I was starting seventh-grade in a high school in Singapore. It was during a history class and the topic was World War II. In 1942, the British lost Singapore to Japan which led to two-and-a-half years of dictatorship ruling. I sat in my chair, my eyes glued to the TV, as the teacher put in a documentary video on the sufferings the Japanese Army put people through. I cringed as the video revealed stories of countless killings of helpless children, forced prostitution and torture techniques. I was close to tears when the teacher turned on the lights.

There was a moment of silence before one of my classmates turned and looked at me. She pointed her fingers at me and shouted, “Traitor! Look what your people did to my people.” Suddenly, all 40 pairs of eyes focused on me. Sensing the hostilities, I sank down in my chair, silently praying that a hole would miraculously appear and suck me into an oblivious vacuum.

For the first time in my life, I had been singled out for my heritage. I was blamed for something I had no control over. I learned that day what it feels like to be misunderstood and to be a part of a negative stereotype.

There’s a Chinese saying (and no, Confucius didn’t say it.), “You can’t use one bamboo stick to overturn a whole boat of people.” Which basically means, you can’t base a stereotype as a reflection for the whole group.

Nowadays, stereotyping is considered a taboo word. Just look at the notice boards around the campus. Different clubs sponsor speakers and events to educate and break stereotypes.

Not all Native Americans are casino owners or sit around telling ancient stories.

Not all Mexican Americans are on welfare or only speak Spanish or belong to a street gang.

Not all Asians excel in school and eat exotic foods like frogs.

Not all African Americans play basketball, listen to gangsta rap and speak Ebonics.
I’m barely scratching the surface here and there are hundreds of different stereotypes on ethnicity, gender, age, sexual orientations, or religion. I am guilty of many of them, both negative and positive stereotypes.

According to “Understanding Psychology” by Robert S. Feldman, psychologists listed several strategies to diminish the effects of prejudice and discrimination.

One of the strategies is to increase contact between the target of stereotyping and the holder of the stereotype. Situations where there is relatively intimate contact, where the individuals are of equal status, or where participants must cooperate with one another or are dependent.

An alternative approach suggests that people who believe in equality and fair treatment of others but hold negative stereotypes should be made to understand that their views are inconsistent.

Probably the most direct means of changing schemes is through education, by teaching people to be more aware of the positive characteristics of targets of stereotyping.

Unfortunately, even though Cal State Fullerton is actively advocating education against stereotyping, the students are not as willing to learn. Recently, I went to a forum titled, “Intercultural Symposium on Race and Religion,” which was an open discussion led by students and professors on the topic of racial and religious stereotypes. I wasn’t surprised to find out that most of the students who attended were minorities. Similarly, when I attended a forum on homophobia, most of the people who attended were members of the Lesbian Gay Bisexual Association.

I’m not denying that people who attended those forums benefited a lot but do you see the irony here? Where is the rest of the “majority” of the campus population?

Even though America has come a long way since the Civil Rights movement of 1965, subtle and obvious incidents of stereotyping, prejudice and discrimination still exists. College is merely a small-scale reflection of the society we live in. We are provided with so many different opportunities to learn about different cultures and philosophies but we fail to utilize it.

It is impossible to end discrimination and prejudice if no one is willing to make the effort to change and learn. What good is concentrating on pursuing higher education when one doesn’t even have time to learn about their neighbor?

As another Chinese saying states, “You live to an old age, you learn till that old age.” Maybe it is time to start learning about something that would make a difference.

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