One evening, Vidya’s thirteen-year-old daughter Anupama announced: “I got 10 out of 25 in Math. Vinod is class-first again. Not surprising, though. Boys are anyways good at Math!”
Vidya perked up her ears: “Who told you that?”
“I just know. It’s a gender thing, Mom,” Anupama added.
One cannot blame Anupama for absorbing the societal stereotype of women being lousy at Math. In 2005, Larry Summers, the president of Harvard University, declared that the shortage of women in top academic posts in Math and science was due to the ‘innate differences in aptitude between men and women’. His gender-biased assertion cost him his post, since owing to a public outcry Summers was forced to resign.
Thanks to such incidents, socio-cultural factors, our families, books and the media, we are constantly assaulted by stereotypes: boys don’t cry, IITs and IIMs are only for Tambrahm boys and Marwaris respectively, and rich children don’t study.
“Children as young as four-five years old are aware of gender, ethnicity, and disabilities. They note the positive and negative biases attached to these identities by their elders. Stereotyping is, thus, a learnt behaviour. What children learn at an early age decides whether they will grow up to accept and comfortably interact with different individuals or whether they will unfairly judge others,” says Chennai-based psychologist M Vasuki.
Thus it is not surprising to see teens branding each other - the girl who loves reading is an ‘intellectual’ and the boy who loves tinkering with technology is a ‘geek’ or a socially awkward ‘nerd’ with no ‘life’. A girl who imitates the cool and smart set in her school is a ‘wannabe’. Age-old stereotypes have morphed into new ones. Girls are supposed to freak out on pink and hate sports; so a boy who digs pink and shuns sports is called a – you guessed it right – gay! Call it twisted logic or whatever you will.
“At 17, I shaved my head and deliberately went bald. I ignored jewellery, and used to fiddle with a Swiss Army knife as I found it handy. After school, I wore unisex clothes. I forged my own identity, free from stereotypical notions of how a girl should look. I was called a ‘weirdo’, though my life was as ordinary as theirs. The brave ones would talk to me and whisper to their friends ‘She’s nice.’ I smiled, winked at my classmates, and spoke to everyone in school; that’s how my friends realized I am me, not a stereotype,” says Nisha D’Cruz.
What is stereotyping?
The Oxford English Dictionary defines a stereotype as ‘a widely held but fixed and oversimplified image or idea of a particular type of person or thing.’ Society creates stereotypes based on very little information.
“We associate a set of characteristics and abilities with a group. Once we meet an individual from this group, we assume he will behave in a certain way, and ignore the differences between individuals. In this globalised world where our youngsters may one day work for an MNC with colleagues from various countries, it is important that they learn from an early age to respect multiculturalism, be sensitive to cultural differences, adopt a broad mind and have a tolerant view of others,” adds Vasuki.
Stereotyping leads to ‘them’ and ‘us’ mentality, preventing us from interacting with others. As we are ignorant about certain cultures, we feel threatened by them and resort to stereotypes to bask in our imagined superiority.
“Once, I went to my new classmate Farhana’s house to study for a test. Was I surprised to see a ‘different’ Farhana at home! Gone was the burkha. She had changed into a small teeshirt and shorts – something that I wear at home! Posters of Rihanna and Harry Potter adorned the walls, and her hair, which I never got to see at school, was cut in a pixie style! I was further shocked when I heard that her parents were doctors. All my stereotypical ideas were shattered on a single day, and now I am wiser from the experience,” says seventeen-year-old GR Vasavi from Hyderabad.
We laugh heartily at the Sardarji or ‘Mallu’ jokes. But for Chennai-based psychologist Karthik Lakshmanan, stereotyping is no laughing matter.
“If someone is from south or rural Tamil Nadu, he cannot excel in studies in Chennai. If someone has studied in Tamil medium, she will not score good marks in college. Such generalizations hurt students and their self-esteem takes a beating. I have told a few adolescents that they need to be assertive when they hear such remarks and that no one can put them down without their consent. Again, a teen’s sense of identity should be strong but he should not poke fun at others,” he adds.
Sugami Ramesh, a psychologist associated with Apollo Hospitals in Bangalore, agrees with him: “I remember an unhappy teen nicknamed ‘desi’ by his classmates. He forced his parents to buy him expensive branded clothes so that his classmates don’t make fun of him. Teens should understand that they don’t need to follow the herd to be happy. They should tell others that they do a certain thing because they prefer it, not because they are poor or lack taste.”
Same old stories
Race, culture, religion, profession, nationality, gender and sexual orientation are the main factors of stereotyping. Though subconsciously we first notice the characteristics of a person, it is wrong to judge his qualities based on appearance: ‘He is fat – so he must be jolly ’ or ‘She is pretty-so she must be nice’.
Rakesh Goenka was sixteen when his father got transferred from Kolkata to Chennai. Did he expect to meet Bollywood’s stereotypical Madrasi?
“Actually, yes,” he sheepishly admits. “I thought all Chennaiites will be crazy about Rajnikanth, eat only idli-dosa, and speak English with a Tamil accent. But, in my class, I discovered friends who watch Bollywood movies and enjoy various cuisines like me. There is more to culture than what meets the eye.”
Ask Rakesh’s friend Bala about stereotyping and he promptly answers, “Because Rakesh is a Marwari, I assumed he was wealthy, with his own family business. Only after mingling with him did I learn that his father is a government employee. Now I know stereotyping is so wrong.”
Darjeeling-based Doma Lepcha was fourteen when she joined a school in Kolkata. Her classmates assumed that since she was from Sikkim, she will be a party animal with zero interest in studies.
“My classmates say ‘North East’ girls are lucky as nobody expects them to study! What is irritating is that a few think I lack ‘morals’ and drink 24/7. They don’t realize that our society is more westernized and liberal. Again, people spread ridiculous ideas like ‘hill tribes’ like us are basically ‘good at heart’, unlike city girls who are shrewd and mean,” adds Doma, who continues to fend off awkward assumptions about ‘Nepalis’.
Doma’s senior, Ranjita Singh, recollects: “My friends forget that there are seven states in the North East. Though I am a Manipuri Hindu, my classmates assumed that I was a Mizo or a Naga Christian and asked typical questions like ‘Do you eat dogs?’ or ‘Do women dominate the men?’”
Rosalyn Gore, an Ahmedabad-based senior copy editor, says: “My schoolmates said that we Anglo-Indians have it easy as we enjoy a laidback lifestyle. Once a ‘friend’ said that I’ll either become a receptionist or a secretary! Attitudes haven’t changed much, as recently a so-called ‘educated’ colleague asked me why ‘all Anglo-Indian guys are railwaymen’ when my Dad is an architect!”
“Parents, friends, and even teachers stereotype students. A schoolgirl said she didn’t want to join the IT industry for work as she overheard her parents saying ‘IT people have no character’,” adds Vasuki.
“I was in the 11th standard when our Biology teacher dismissed three of us by remarking that since we were Marwari girls, after school we will be ‘married off’ to rich businessmen. We felt hurt by this comment, and we just squirmed in our seats,” recalls Sweta Tibrewal, a banker.
New-age parents like R Vaishnavi and TV Ramesh are trying to break the gender stereotypes while bringing up their children, only to discover that certain stereotypes are reasonably accurate.
“I decorated my son’s room in pink and my daughter’s in blue when they were toddlers. My son thinks pink is ‘sissy’. My daughter prefers her world pink – walls, dresses, and cups! But we make our son help us out in the kitchen. My husband is gradually imparting his love for football to my daughter as he watched the recent Euro Cup with her and shared the game’s nuances!”, says Vaishnavi.
Tips to help break stereotypes:
- Do not stereotype others and your children will follow suit.
- Teach your children not to tease or reject anyone based on identity.
- Allow children to experiment with non-traditional roles. They will learn that men can help out with household chores and women can fix fused bulbs.
- Show your child that those with disabilities can perform certain activities like reading or singing.
- Ask your child if your own family is stereotypical. Discuss their answers.
- Talk with your children about stereotypes portrayed in the media.
- Encourage children to form friendships with students from other states and countries.
- Buy multicultural art or alternative literature, visit cities/countries, avail of online resources or visit museums and libraries to provide multicultural experiences to your child.
- Help your child understand that taking pride in one’s culture does not mean feeling superior to someone else’s.
“It is unbelievable how people judge others based on appearances. Stereotyping is very common among teenagers. I feel stereotyping is more prevalent among girls, as we are much more observant when it comes to appearance and body language. I realized its severity after I heard a rumour at school that I take drugs.
I first found it very funny, and was more curious than angry to know why they thought so. I discovered that I was called a junkie because I had coloured my hair and pierced my nose. But isn’t nose piercing a traditional thing? Others with coloured hair were also labelled junkies.
I investigated and was shocked to discover that a girl who has many guy friends is a ‘flirt’, a girl who wears shorts is a ‘slut’, a person who uses a deodorant at school after sports is a ‘show-off’ , and what’s worse , my classmates actually refer to them using such labels! They’ll say ‘one of the flirts has lent me her book.’
But I don’t blame them as we see so much stereotyping around us. Adults call us teens ‘rebellious’, they say that Malayali Christians are not trustworthy , and that Tamil Brahmins are gossipy – it’s atrocious! Are we befriending a person or his religion?
People stay away from those who have been labelled. They do not get to know the wonderful people they may actually be. I think we should all learn a little more about acceptance.”