Stereotypes Harm Dignity

I came across that video today and I just had to share it.  The clip relates to how often in development work stereotypes are created for a group of people.  For example, we imagine many children in Africa as being small and underfed, which is because of the ways that the media has portrayed them.  Then individuals make money off of these stereotypes, and they turn these situations into a commodity.  This concept is called poverty porn.

The issue is deeper than this comoditization of experiences which the film is getting at.  The ways that we understand individuals and cultures shapes how we interact with them.  We can all too often just accept a “single story” for a person or a community rather than realizing the totality of their experiences.

On the surface, this seems pretty simple.  Don’t judge. Be open.

In fact, it is so much harder than that.   I keep circling back to culture.  Culture shapes the experiences of individuals and many people operate within a specific cultural milieu.  In the US for example, we have cultural values of freedom, democracy, and working hard.  Having traveled to 40+ countries, I have quickly learned that other cultures value different things– family, a laid back life, or education.  These values do shape a society, as they are what members are taught from when they are young and these are the things that are valued.  Living overseas for a year, I never would have understood the ways in which my American Evangelical culture shaped the ways that I operate and understand the world.  Culture shapes us.

Yet, there are plenty of examples of people pushing for changes to the culture– the womens suffrage movement and civil rights movement in the US are just 2 examples of breaking with culture.  As I think about Bulgaria, a year ago I would have said that it was not likely that Bulgarians would be protesting to the extent that they are today– shutting down major universities and making their concerns known.  The Bulgarian culture which I interacted with was one of not realizing personal agency. My students believed that they could not have any change in the country.  That changed in February…and then the recent round of protests proves that there can be exceptions or even changes within the cultural norms.

The bottom line: Understand the cultural context that you are working in.  That culture will shape values and social norms.  Yet, we should understand that culture is fluid and changing.  Culture can change, as it did in the US and in Bulgaria.  Furthermore, we should not project on individuals assumptions about how we believe that they will act based on a culture.  There will always be out-liers.  By not using culture to define the experience of someone,  we will not stereotype them.

This theme relates to international contexts as well as situations within the US as well.  I am currently doing work in a neighborhood in Decatur, IL.  The community is mostly African American and they have a low level of education.  As I am working on my project, I am constantly reminding myself to not make assumptions about the community.  Just because the demographics are similar to a community where I worked in Chicago, does not mean that the needs and values are the same.  I am taking my knowledge of the culture to help me frame the situation and frame questions that I am asking, but I am not viewing it as the totality.



One thought on “Stereotypes Harm Dignity

  1. Pingback: A Stereotypical Blog Post | The World As I Discover It

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