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Home > Education > Language Learning > Other Cultures
Cultural Stereotypes: Superficially Humorous but Potentially Harmful

Article by Gustavo Lequerica-Calvo (7,982 pts )
Edited & published by Rebecca Scudder (68,354 pts ) on Oct 14, 2008
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Cultural stereotypes may seem humorous but they can harm people. While many people understand and accept this astrue, a "case study" approach, in the form of personal testimony, is often more valuable than a truckload of research.
This article is about my own personal experience with stereotypes. I rarely write in the first person, but this is a topic that merits a deviation from my journalistic practice of assuming a neutral voice. What I have to say is valuable to anyone interested in cross-culturalcommunication, because stereotypes are an extreme example of cross-cultural miscommunication.
Most likely, all of us grew up hearing comments from our parents or peers about certain individuals or the way they acted. At some point we began to wonder why our parents or friends had said something awful or funny about a person having to do with their being gay, Jewish, Black, Latino, Chinese or a memberof some other identifiable social or ethnic category. When we were young, we probably didn't have a name for this sort of comment, but as we grew up we learned to label such comments as stereotyping or bigotry.Stereotypes are generated by ignorance and fear of a person or group that is different from the observer. When we first heard the comments, we may have found them funny, even if we realizedtheir inherent cruelty. On one level, people need to classify everything they encounter in order to know how to deal with them and define themselves as members of their own group. Thus, in certain social situations stereotypes serve to provide "answers" to questions about how we should act toward others. The problem is that stereotypes are distorted taxonomies: incorrect maps of the socioculturallandscape. Just as a distorted map would cause a traveler to become lost, so do false impressions about people and groups cause individuals and indeed, whole societies to lose their moral compass.
Growing up in Cartagena, Colombia, where the local population is overwhelmingly African Colombian, I heard the African Colombians telling jokes about other African Colombians, or the Cartageneros tellingjokes about how lazy the Cartageneros are, or how the rest of the Caribbean Coast of Colombia is just one big patio for a party. Although it wasn't true, it was funny to hear at the time. One aspect of culture in the northern part of Colombia is tell self-consciously mocking jokes about one's own type.
Despite the seemingly harmless nature of such joking, stereotypes can sink into people's realimage of themselves and do real harm. When stereotypes sink into the psyche of a group and they come to define themselves by that stereotype, a whole culture is harmed. One example of how a stereotype can erupt into violence can be found in the murder of a teacher named Rolando Perez. When he was murdered, everyone spoke of the act as a crime of passion instead of as the hate crime that it was.Ioffer the following translation of a portion of the local media's coverage of this crime. The police Coronel of Cartagena said “At any rate, this fellow lived a dissolute life. He was promiscuous. As a gay man, he had a lot of lovers.” The Coronel was unable to see the way in which a stereotype about gays could be clouding his own professional judgment in dealing with the case. The sexualorientation of the victim was elevated to such a level of importance that it explained away, even justified murder -- despite the fact that he was one of the most respected teachers in the city. He was known for his ability to inspire his students to reach their full intellectual potential.
The Rolando case demonstrates how we may recognize the negative impact of stereotypes when seen from a comfortable...
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