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
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,
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
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
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.