Abu Dhabi, UAETuesday 20 October 2020

As a white person, I know I can do better: smashing stereotypes is my first step

We can all do more in the fight against racial inequality

A young woman wears a facemask as people gather at the Alexander Platz in Berlin, Germany, to protest against the killing of George Floyd. AP Photo
A young woman wears a facemask as people gather at the Alexander Platz in Berlin, Germany, to protest against the killing of George Floyd. AP Photo

"Stereotypes stem from truths," I'm often told.

But do they?

Or have certain assumptions been so persistently perpetuated that they've somehow become real in people’s minds?

When we meet someone for the first time, most of us will, knowingly or not, make a snap judgment. Some people may base their initial take on demeanour, behaviour or tone of voice.

We desperately need to change the way we think about each other

Others may use age, gender or even the colour of someone's skin to determine what to make of that person.

But what do we ever really know about each other on first meeting?

Humans are so complex it takes us a lifetime to get to know ourselves, never mind each other.

While what is happening around the world surrounding George Floyd’s tragic death hopefully signals major societal change on the horizon when it comes to issues of race, the real shift needs to come from within each and every one of us. We desperately need to change the way we think about each other.

Protesters gather in Parliament Square during the Black Lives Matter protest rally in Whitehall, London, in memory of George Floyd who was killed on May 25 while in police custody in the US city of Minneapolis. (Gareth Fuller/PA via AP)
Protesters gather in Parliament Square during the Black Lives Matter protest rally in Whitehall, London, in memory of George Floyd. AP

That includes everyone, everywhere. Because, let’s face it, no country is devoid of racism in its many, many insidious guises.

We can protest, share posts on Instagram, donate money and read all the race-related books we want, but if we don’t start first with our own mindsets, then how can real change truly be achieved?

Even if you think of yourself as anti-racist, we all still have work to do. We can still challenge any underlying and unseen prejudices we might harbour every single day.

I believe this all starts with the battle against stereotypes.

As a white person who grew up in the Middle East, around people from so many different backgrounds, I’ve been surrounded by and even subjected to my fair share of unfair labelling.

While the majority of us already blast the major, clearly offensive stereotypes, I truly believe that even the seemingly innocuous, “positive” labels are damaging and reductive.

American director, writer and actor Jordan Peele emphasised this so well in his hit 2017 horror film Get Out. Without giving away too many spoilers, the plot depicted, in an albeit exaggerated way, the dangers of fetishising traits that are commonly associated with the black community – for example, athletic prowess and great physique.

You might think someone might like to hear about all the “great” things “their people” are known for – but all that does is alienate someone, casting them as the “other” or at least different to you. And there is no way every single person from an entire country or race can be one thing.

Black Lives Matter is projected onto the Houses of Parliament, in London, as part of the ongoing worldwide demonstrations following the death of George Floyd. AP
Black Lives Matter is projected onto the Houses of Parliament, in London, as part of the ongoing worldwide demonstrations following the death of George Floyd. AP

As a woman, I always flinch when any sentence begins, “Women are …” or any version of that. Whether you’re saying, “women are bad at driving” or “women love the colour pink” or even “women are great listeners”, rightly or wrongly, I don’t believe females are, do or love anything specific.

I dislike pink, my husband is a much better listener than I am and I like to think I’m alright at driving, thank you very much.

Our obsession with labelling only feeds into our fears of the unknown

As someone with no siblings, another one that gets my goat is “but you don’t seem like an only child”. What’s that supposed to mean?

When we start hearing stereotypes repeated to us from a young age, the danger is that they start to gain power. For years we’ve battled against the idea that men are better than women in a work setting and in America people still fight the perception that tall, black men are a threat to society. For as many years, people have believed it, too.

But our obsession with labelling only feeds into our fears of the unknown. Sure, some of us may have had a stereotype proven right to us, but every single one of us will have had plenty more proven wrong.

A demonstrator clenches his fist during a Black Lives Matter rally in Parliament Square in London, Saturday, June 6, 2020, as people protest against the killing of George Floyd by police officers in Minneapolis, USA. (AP Photo/Frank Augstein)
A placard at a UK Black Lives Matter rally. AP Photo

American cultural anthropologist Margaret Mead once said: “Instead of being presented with stereotypes by age, sex, colour, class or religion, children must have the opportunity to learn that, within each range, some people are loathsome and some are delightful.”

Ain’t that the truth.

We need to stop trying to find a “formula”, and start to understand that life – and people – are mysterious and multifaceted. And that some things are simply beyond our control.

By accepting that, and letting go of these outdated beliefs, we can allow people to be exactly who they are.

I, for one, believe our world will be much better for it.

Updated: June 8, 2020 05:32 PM

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