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Harsha Nahata: Turn off the stereo(type)

By Harsha Nahata, Columnist
Published February 6, 2013

Duke University has been making the news — but not for the right reasons. A fraternity’s decision to hold an Asian-themed party sparked outrage across the campus. The party incorporated many different Asian stereotypes, including conical hats and geisha outfits.

The party inspired protests by the university’s Asian Students Association — sentiments that have been supported campus-wide. A few months earlier, a Pennsylvania State University fraternity’s decision to throw a Mexican-themed party also elicited anger from many.

There’s a lot that has been said about these incident, especially in our campus community. If Facebook is any indication, the consensus is that what happened at Duke is outrageous and unacceptable. And it is. It’s disrespectful and a huge oversimplification and overgeneralization of an entire community.

What's at the root of this and other bias incidents we hear about — whether here or at schools around the country — are stereotypes. generalizations about how we see each other and in turn how we expect each other to act.

So, let’s get to the bottom of this. Let’s talk about stereotypes.

They do exist. They always have and always will.

“Asians are extremely smart and competitive, have funny accents and drive slowly.”

“African Americans are lazy or criminals.”

“Hispanics are here illegally. They’re all border jumpers. Or they facilitate the drug trade.”

“Arabs and Muslims are terrorists.”

And these are just the big ones. Then there are all the other assumptions we make about personality and appearance. Are they wearing bright colors? They must be preppy. Dark colors? Goth. Are they quiet? Socially awkward. Are they smart? Nerds. Are they athletic? Arrogant.

I hope that those preceding paragraphs were as difficult for you to read as they were for me to write. It’s painful to acknowledge many of these stereotypes because doing so reminds us of just how superficial they are. And yet, they exist.

We can’t ignore stereotypes. We can’t discount them or hope for them to magically disappear. They won’t. And if we keep trying to cover them up under a farce of political correctness, they’ll only continue to subconsciously influence how we see people. Which, if anything, is in some ways just as bad as using them in a disrespectful manner.

But we also can’t be limited by stereotypes. We can’t let them influence what we strive for, or how we see ourselves. And we absolutely cannot use them to target or marginalize a group. Simply put, we can’t use them as a tool to hurt those who are different.

And so it’s necessary to understand the purpose that stereotypes serve, but then to take them with a grain of salt. Stereotypes are an extension of the heuristic devices our brain uses to quickly process the vast amount of information it takes in. We categorize objects and ideas all the time — in terms of color, shape, size and purpose. In terms of how much we like something or how happy it makes us. Heck, we even categorize categories.

But we have to. It’s how our brain forms connections. It’s how we remember information and internalize it. Stereotypes are simply an extension of this need to find order in a world with so much diverse information. They’re a way to organize the patterns we see. The only difference is that with stereotypes we’re categorizing people, not just objects or ideas.

And that’s what we often forget — that when we use stereotypes as a way of categorizing, it’s people we’re categorizing. Humans — with feelings, dreams and insecurities. We forget that the simplest way to understand someone is just to talk to them. We forget that no matter how different our identities might be, we all feel in the same way.

Stereotypes lead us to oversimplify; and when we do, the only person that loses out is us. Yes, incidents like what happened at Duke are hurtful to the targeted group, but the targeted group knows its identity and has the strength to assert it. Those perpetuating the generalizations of the stereotype are the ones truly missing out.

They miss out on understanding the beauty of a culture and a people. They miss out on embracing a group that may be potential friends. They miss out on experiencing a new way of life and think. Many of us prefer to live in a simplified black-and-white version of the world. And if that’s the choice you make, then so be it. But in doing so, you close out a world of possibilities, a world of opportunities, a world of learning about different places and people and ways of life.

There’s way more to an individual than the stereotypes associated with the identities they hold. It’s unfair to them and to ourselves to limit them to just that.

Harsha Nahata can be reached at hnahata@umich.edu.