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Stereotypes, Never Ending Struggle

Courtesy to Mary James Edward, an Excellent African American Mentor in One Session of SUSI RPA 2011 in  Understanding the Concept of Prejudice and Stereotype

Stereotypes, as defined in the previous post refers to mostly negative opinions to the Other ( a certain group, or groups of people that have different ground with us in terms of either race, gender, religion, belief or else) that are held to be true. The Other is mostly the minority group in a certain society. For example, in a white dominated US society, the other groups encompasses Black, Latin American, Asian American or other ethnic minorities. In a Muslim dominated Indonesian society, the Other encompasses Catholics, Protestants, Hindus or Buddhists. Remember that the concept as majority and minority is heavily influenced by time and place. One may belong to the Other group in a certain time and place, but in a very different time and place s/he may belong to the majority group. 

In this post, a more detailed explanation about the nature of stereotypes will be given. It will discuss about some basic problems of stereotype. On the top of this posting, there is a picture. Two man, black on the left white on the right. They walk side by side in a supposed  to be a garden with their children in the strollers. The cloud style representing their thoughts show what they think about each other. The Black man addresses the 'other' man as 'White'. The White man addresses the 'other' man as 'Black'. They even do not look each other and act as if the 'other' person walking beside them does not exist. They ignore the existence of the other guy. However, the children have their own thought. They wave hand to each other and think that 'hey that is another child, like me!'. They do not even bother to label that 'other' child as Black or White, as enemy or friend. They don't stereotype one to another. This little piece of picture, despite its size, teaches me so many things about the nature of stereotype. 

The two children do not think the other children having ground differences. They just think the other as a child, same like him. However, will they think the same once they, say, a teenager? They may think the same but in most cases they will not think the same. Instead, they will think as what their fathers think. They will start to refer the other as Black or White. This can happen if they are raised to believe the stereotypes of the Other. Thus, stereotypes is actually a socio-culturally constructed opinions. 

The history of Black and White in US is a very long history that dates back to hundred years ago, at the age of slavery was still legalized. From those past years, there exist a common value attributed to Black people i.e. that they were inferior, that they were lower race than the Whites. These negative and demeaning values were perpetuated within White, the dominant society. These negative values became the most basic stereotype to Black people. These stereotypes were and are long perpetuated in American mainstream culture through its repeating pattern in media. Let us say, how many White male heroes in American movie? There are thousands of White male heroes that can be termed as the good guy. What about the Black heroes? Black male heroes are rarely found. They exist but they can be counted. There are more Black villains than Black heroes. By this simple quantitative analysis, it can be concurred that Black's stereotype as harsh and secondary citizens are still perpetuated.

This media-perpetuation-issue also helps the new generations to believe the certain stereotypes. It is also applicable to analyze how Islam is stereotyped negatively in American popular media. For example, there are more Arabic ethnic descendants playing as terrorist in US popular movies. Although this character does not clearly state his religious view, it implicitly suggests that Arabic country which is a heavily dominated Muslim society are prone to be terrorist. There are also various study in many kinds of academic journals that show American popular movies that represent Arabs (and Muslim indirectly) as terrorist. 

Thus, the first problem with stereotype is that it is heavily perpetuated by media, the popular and profit oriented media. Many popular culture theorist argue that in order a product to be popular, it needs to represent the values existing in the society. Thus, if stereotypes are common values that are held to be true by society, then it is needed to be employed. Therefore, I believe there cannot be a Muslim hero in American movies in the near future. Another example, we can take a look in the heavily produced Indonesian sinetron, a-soap-opera-like TV show. Most of the main characters in sinetron is usally proclaimed as Muslim. They become the main character that will usually perform Muslim identity -sholat or just referring to Allah SWT, God in Muslim tradition- in the sinetron scenes. Even, some publicly known as Christian actor or actress will play as Muslim character. It is very rare occasion when there is Christian main character or a Muslim actor or actress play as Christian characters. It is all because the common values of the society that exist now do not state so. 

The second problem of stereotype is that it works like a figurative language - pars pro toto which means 'part for the whole'. The nature of stereotypes as we may have noted earlier is constructed by negative values. Black people for instance is notorious for its violence. It may be true for some group. But there are also plenty other Black people who love peaceful ways. Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, for instance, advocated non violence movement in pursuing the equal rights for Black people in US. Muslims in US are also stereotyped with terrorism. It is represented with Osama Bin Laden, a radical Moslim who is suspected as the mastermind behind all terrorism attacks to US mainly. However, there are plenty more Muslims who will stand against him by saying that Osama's ways are not Islamic ways. There are plenty more Muslims who will say that Islam does not teach violence. Stereotypes take this small part of the Other as the representation of the whole group. This is very dangerous problem since it leads to a total misunderstanding and misconception of the Other group. And once again, media are rarely interested to cover the larger part of the Other. Media are mostly interested in the negative smaller part of the Other as they can be commodified as objects to sell to mass society.  

Lastly, stereotypes may lead to inappropriate act or violence toward the Other. Stereotypes that are basically based its catalyst on smaller part of the Other may endanger the larger part of the Other. After the Vietnam War, there were Anti Asian values in US society. There were cases about Asians Americans being beaten up. After 9/11, there is a growing Islamophobia in US society. More US citizens are fearful to Islam more than ever. There was the case of Quran Burning in Florida, US and the protest to ban the establishment of Islamic Center in New York by some group of people. In Indonesia, there was a case that led to the killing of three minority religions by majority group in that area. Not to mention other riots in Indonesia that were based on dissent view on religion interpretation. 

Breaking the Stereotypes 
Once again, I want to emphasize that the biggest problem of stereotype is that it is perpetuated. Combating stereotype is not an easy fight. It is generations to generations struggle. It cannot be done as easy as we turn our palm. For instance, I want to go back to the history of Black people in US. In 1776, US gained its Independence by having a declaration that states 'All men are created equal', yet there were some states that legalized slavery. Weren't Black men? Why weren't they equal then? In 1865, slavery was abolished, almost 100 years after US independence. However, were Blacks equal by then? No, they were discriminated and segregated in the public area. There were many stereotypes attached on them that lasted even until now. Black people finally gained its equal rights in 1965, another 100 years. Fortunately, it only took 43 years for US to have its very first Black President. The time line shows the struggle of Black people in US. It tool more than 200 years for them to have the very first US president. Why does it take so long? When minority run for a position which is dominated by majority, s/he may be heavily attacked by stereotypes that belong to her/his group. The only US Catholic President, JFK even died and some said that it dealt with his religious and ethnicity background as minority.

Breaking stereotype is a struggle of generations. And it is best to start with our generation. Then how to break it? Stereotype works in ways that make us ignore the existence of the Other. We tend to believe stereotypes because our parents, our teachers and our friends believe it. We tend to believe in what the mainstream society believe as true and we take this belief for granted. We never try to re check the legitimation of that stereotype. We ignore them. Ignorant people is what stereotype wants us to be.

Not to be ignorant is probably one of the simplest way to start untying and breaking stereotypes. How to be not ignorant? It can be started by studying and learning about the Other. I learned this from the 9/11 survivors and victims. Many of them start to study about Islam deeper. Once they break their ignorance, they find that Islam is not a religion that authorizes violence. It never legitimates terrorism as its way of life. They knew this fact and broke the stereotypes of Islam as a violent religion. 

Other way to break the stereotype is by having a direct interaction with the Other. How can we say that group A is cruel and tricky while we never had an interaction with them? Quite often that certain negative stereotypes to a group of people are proven wrong once communication and interaction are established. 

It is never been an easy fight to break any stereotype since it is so pervasive in our minds. Let us just start from ourselves to start believing that stereotypes are just a socioculturally constructed values. They may or may not be true in some degree. What we can do is to develop critical thinking, to always question the existing stereotypes in our society. By doing so, we won't be persons like stereotype makes us to be, IGNORANT person. 


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