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Moaving Beyond Stereotypes

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By Patricia G. Omoqui
In the wake of the Christmas bombing attempt by Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, Nigerians worldwide are naturally outraged that they would be stereotyped and thrown into a category associated with terrorists.

Obviously 150 million Nigerians do not fit into the same category as this young man.   Most Nigerians are peaceful and peace-loving.  Yet because of the fear raised from this one incident, and because people worldwide don’t know much about Nigerians, it seems they are quick to lump Nigerians into the “potential terrorist” category.

What can we do to change this situation?  My suggestions may surprise you.  If you want the world to change, you must be the change you want to see.

Noticing how much we dislike being labeled, this may be the perfect time to look within and ask, “Are we guilty of stereotyping others?”

Someone once said, “Stereotypes are devices for saving a biased person the trouble of learning.” Too often we are guilty of taking the “labeling shortcut.”  We judge people by category rather than educating ourselves about the individual.   We are blinded by beliefs that have been passed on to us by our family, community and country.  We look through lenses clouded by bias and judgment, unable to see the uniqueness or hear the wisdom another human being has to share with us.

A stereotype is a generalization with which we label a group of people without considering individual differences.   It is a view that we as groups tend to accept and project onto groups we identify as different from us.  Stereotypes can be positive: “Hausa people are true to their word.  Yes means yes.  No means no.”   Unfortunately they tend to be unfairly negative and demeaning.  For example, “Niger Deltans are militants.” When we stop to observe we can see the absurdity of these sweeping generalizations.

Why do we use stereotypes?  Perhaps it is mere mental laziness – we feel it takes too much effort (and risk) to get to know a person.  Maybe we like our categories.  They provide us with artificial ways to feel superior to a person or group.

Stereotypes are unconscious thought patterns that divide us, perpetuate conflict and prevent cooperation.  Stereotyping is an epidemic.  We categorize others based on gender, religion, economic status, tribe, nationality, even age.  We are quick to label others, e.g. “Women are petty” or “Men are insensitive.” Yet we are angered when someone labels us unfairly.

As I was probing this topic I had some stimulating conversations with Maple Tammy, a personal development expert and speaker based in Port Harcourt (  Maple shared with me the way in which he had deconstructed some of his personal stereotypes.

“I grew up with a strong stereotype about marrying an Ibo woman because my uncle had marital difficulties with one.  This view began to change when one of my other uncles married a lady from my area and he had marital difficulties that led to a divorce.  Two wives from two different tribes, same marital challenges.  Was the problem because the lady is from Ibo? I don’t think so any longer! I have met many great ladies from Ibo, who are unique and distinct!

I grew up thinking Muslims are a bone in the neck.  This began to change when I was much younger.  We were facing dire financial challenges at home. It was a Fulani lady, a Muslim, who went out of her way to stand by us and help us.  She became a very good friend of my mum.  My mum who was a teacher started teaching the lady how to read and write.  Now the woman is literate and their friendship is one my mum will never forget even though the lady has relocated to the North. This Muslim lady did for us what our blood relatives didn’t do. So did it matter what religion the lady or my mum belonged to? I don’t think so! Thank God I had dropped my stereotype—when I did my NYSC I was posted to the village with a Muslim partner.  I was able to get along with him.

One day a bus I boarded took off immediately after I alighted because a police van tried to double cross it.  The conductor hadn’t given me my change of 460 Naira and this left me stranded. Although I trekked to the nearest place where I knew someone who would graciously assist me, my stereotypes about decently dressed people who ask for my assistance on the road had changed

There are many examples I could share, but I will end it with this:  Don’t stereotype people based on their academic, financial, religious, cultural, societal, or political background, relate with them based on the content of their character.

Maple and I put our minds together to provide you with tips to uncover and release destructive stereotypes.
1. Become aware of the stereotypes you use.   Observe your thought processes.  Listen to yourself and others as they talk.  Pay attention to broad statements like, “Women are….Men are….The rich are…Yoruba are…Muslims are….Oyinbos are….” Use these statements to bring to the surface your preconceptions and judgments about certain people and groups.  Then be honest.  Ask yourself, “Am I automatically treating people differently (either positively or negatively?) based on unconscious biases?”

2. Become conscious of how you formed your stereotypes?  Were you taught these ideas by your parents, your friends, your church or your society?  Perhaps you were taught this based on fear and misunderstanding.  Barbara Bush, Former First Lady said, “Bias has to be taught.  If you hear your parents downgrading women or people of different backgrounds, why, you are going to do that.” You needn’t perpetuate these biases once you become aware of them.

3. Look for things you have in common with the groups you stereotype.  Do they care about their families?  Do they love their children?  Do they want to be happy in life?  Do they work hard?  The ways in which we are alike are often greater than our differences.

4. Open your mind – choose your own thinking.  You don’t need to adhere to the way everyone else thinks.  Just because thousands of people think in the same way does not mean they are right!  Create your own perspectives.  Don’t go with the crowd – accept others for who they are and do what is right!

5. Encourage acceptance of differences, even celebrate and enjoy them.  Open to learning about that which is unfamiliar to you instead of fearing it.  Stretch yourself.  Talk to someone you would normally avoid.  Seek ways you can learn about and appreciate them.  There is always something interesting to learn.

6. Look at the person in the mirror.  Michael Jackson had it right, “I’m looking at the man in the mirror.  I’m asking him to change his ways.” When you are tempted to use a stereotype when dealing with a person or group, remember how you feel when someone does that to you.  Break negative cycles.  Grow peace and harmony rather than furthering division, anger and conflict.

Your assignment this week is to take time to uncover at least one major stereotype you use.  Consider the possibility of releasing it.  Open your heart.  Be honest.  Begin to release these projections and take time to look at people with fresh eyes.  By doing so, you are giving people a chance to show you who they are.
Let’s do to others what we would have them do for us.  In doing so, we create change in our World.

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