We All Live With Images

As we have seen, a person's identity cannot be summed up in just one label. Often though we tend to concentrate on limited or distorted aspects. This is because the responses of different human groups to each other are the product of a complicated system of social relations and power. To discover some of the mechanisms at work, we need to examine the role of stereotypes, prejudice and ethnocentrism.


Stereotypes consist basically in shared beliefs or thoughts about a particular human group. A stereotype is an ensemble of characteristics that sums up a human group usually in terms of behaviour, habits, etc.

The objective of stereotypes is to simplify reality: "they are like that". Bosses are tyrannical; these people are lazy, those are punctual; the people in that part of town are dangerous - one or some of them may have been, but all? Sometimes we use stereotypes about the group to which we feel we belong in order to feel stronger or superior to others. (Or, indeed, to excuse faults in ourselves - "What can I do about it? We are all like that!"). Stereotypes are usually based on some kind of contact or images that we have acquired in school, through mass media or at home, which then become generalised to take in all the people who could possibly be linked.

It has been suggested that we need stereotypes in order to survive. How useful do you think they are?

In everyday language it is sometimes difficult to tell the difference between stereotypes and prejudices.


A prejudice is a judgement we make about another person or other people without really knowing them. Prejudices can be negative or positive in character. Prejudices are learned as part of our socialisation process and they are very difficult to modify or eradicate. Therefore it is important that we are aware that we have them.

To explain this concept more directly it could help to examine how deeply we know all of our friends. We may have different friends for different occasions, for going to the cinema, going walking, helping with homework, playing football, going to concerts. Do we know what music our football friends enjoy? Or do we just guess? Making assumptions is easy and common. If it is that simple to make assumptions about friends, think how easy it is to make false judgments about people you don't know.

Why do you think prejudices are hard to change?

Prejudices and stereotypes are schemes that help us to understand reality; when reality does not correspond to our prejudice it is easier for our brains to change our interpretation of reality than to change the prejudice. Prejudices help us to complement information when we do not have it all. Siang Be demonstrates this process by asking his audience to listen to the following passage:

"Mary heard the ice-cream van coming down the street. She remembered her birthday money and ran into the house".

You could interpret this passage like this: Mary is a child, she would like an ice-cream, she runs into the house to get some money so that she can buy the ice-cream. But where do you find any of this information? Try changing any of the nouns in the passage ('money' to 'gun', for instance) and see what happens.

Prejudice and stereotypes about other cultural groups

We absorb prejudices and stereotypes about other cultural groups sometimes unconsciously - but they come from somewhere and they serve many purposes:

• to help us evaluate our own cultures

• to evaluate other cultures and ways of life

• to govern the pattern of relationships our culture maintains with other cultures

• to justify the treatment and discrimination of people from other cultures.


Our judgements, evaluations and justifications are influenced strongly by our ethnocentrism. This means that we believe our response to the world - our culture - is the right one, others are somehow not normal. We feel that our values and ways of living are universal, the correct ones for all people, the "others" are just too stupid to understand this obvious fact. Mere contact with people from other cultures can actually reinforce our prejudices, our ethnocentric spectacles blinding us to anything but that which we expect to see. Other cultures may seem attractive or exotic for us but usually our view is coloured by negative prejudices and stereotypes and so we reject them.

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