Let’s (Finally) Talk About Stereotypes

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Debunking Stereotypes, Bangkok, 2011

Debunking Stereotypes, Bangkok, 2011

“See the car here? Ten to one that the driver is Chinese.”

“Are you sure?”

“Come on! Toyota, covered seats and a box of tissues at the back. Oh, and there is a “福”” hanging from the rear view mirror.”

The car beeps and I turn around to see who is holding the key.

Chinese lady.

Damn, I wish I had played for money.

Stereotypes exist for a reason. Even though we love to constantly dwell on how different and special we are, we are a byproduct of our upbringing, culture, environment and other strong factors that influence us as a group. Sure, as individuals, we have our preferences, likes and dislikes, and we are all different. But if you look at the big picture, there are patterns.

It’s hard to talk about stereotypes. Just mentioning them is usually frown upon. Stereotyping can lead to discrimination (“all [insert specific group]are [insert negative statement]) or self-fulfilling prophecies (“As a woman, I can’t break the glass ceiling”).

But I think it’s even more harmful to deny the existence (and possible validity) of stereotypes. Otherwise, how would you debunk or address them?

In our multicultural household, we generally choose to make fun of stereotypes as a way to celebrate our respective cultures.

For instance, Asians love deals. When a product is on sale, they stock up and clear shelves (and bring what they don’t need to friends and family). I can’t tell you how many times I had the following exchange with my in-laws:

“… Thank you, but we don’t eat (insert whatever food on sale they brought). And not three boxes/five pounds/seven bags of it anyway.”

“But it was on sale!”

And yes, I’m also a stereotype of my French upbringing. Open the fridge and cheese and other dairy products will fall on you. I smoke. I can take me twenty minutes to get to the point and I don’t see being productive as the epitome of life. I’m a bit of a hedonist and I really don’t understand what’s the big fuss about sunbathing topless.

I started to question stereotypes when I first traveled to China. For the first time of my life, I was a visible minority, openly stared at everywhere I went. And Chinese can be quite blunt (yes, I’m stereotyping!) so they would ask me questions that would be taboo or considered as “too personal” in other cultures. Chinese have their own rules regarding politeness but political correctness isn’t part of it.

“How does it feel to be married to a Chinese man?”

“Pretty much like being married to a white man, I suspect,” I explained over and over again. “Except for the fact we have these giant bags of rice in the cupboard.”

“How much money do people make in North America?”

“Some people are very rich,” I admitted. “But many are surprisingly poor. And people don’t save money, they tend to spend it.”

Meanwhile, I was confronting my own stereotypes. Yes, China is a pretty crowded place. No, people don’t spend their time slaughtering dogs and eating them. Chinese can be surprisingly individualistic. They are not easily brainwashed, many people just distance themselves from politics. Food isn’t that weird, really—a few dishes are rather exotic but they are usually rare delicacies, served for special occasions.

In the following years, as Feng and I traveled the world, we verified several stereotypes (yes, the pace of life is slower in Latin America; yes, Argentinians and Brazilians are obsessed with soccer; yes, the Australian outback is a remote as you can think) and debunked many other (Singapore isn’t as clean and orderly as you think; Malaysia, a Muslim country, was very welcoming; not everyone in Mexico is waiting in line to cross illegally to the US).

We were also stereotyped along the way. For instance, mixed couples of Asian men and Western women are rarer than the other way around. And even though mixed relationships are commonplace in North America, if we queue somewhere, unless we are talking to each other or holding hands, we will be treated as two different customers. “We are together,” I often have to say. I don’t take offense—why would I? That said, I was slightly annoyed in Thailand where many locals thought I was renting Feng by the hour…

Stereotypes can be used because it’s so damn convenient when unpredictable human beings fit into little boxes, properly labelled. They are broad generalizations, and they are sometime true. But as long as you don’t treat stereotypes as iron-clad laws that apply to every single person, I don’t see why we should pretend they don’t exist.

So yes, let’s talk about stereotypes. Let’s laugh about them, address them when needed and let’s stop to be so fucking touchy. Just… just ask. Politely, respectfully, but ask.

Ignorance is never the answer.

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About Author

French woman in English Canada. World citizen, new mom, traveler, translator, writer and photographer. Looking for comrades to start a new revolution.

28 Comments

  1. Found myself nodding along with this. I think that stereotypes to do with certain cultures can be extremely valid. I think that it is possible to generalise with them, I just think you have to remember they aren’t true of every single person. Yes, generally speaking Chinese people might love a deal, French people might love cheese and English people might love being football hooligans…but not all of them do! Really great post x

    • I think you are more aware of stereotypes and cultural quirks when you are an immigrant (and especially when you live with someone with a very different cultural background). In order to fit in and understand each other better, you simply have to ask about the culture… and it includes debunking/verifying stereotypes!

  2. Martin Penwald on

    As French, we are always « rouspéting » (google translate give “to bitch” for « râler », but I don’t feel it is adequate). Yes, I play with that, especially in Québec, in part because of the « consensus mou » which is a canadian way of behave : do not criticize, you risk to hurt the feeling of someone.
    I think that the fact that Canada and U.S.A are immigration countries, but without integration policy, makes that immigrants from the same country tend to stay together after coming here, and can reinforce stereotypes because people will sometimes tend to act as they are to supposed to act, as a way to assert their origins in face of the autochton fauna.

    So, besides that, how much money do you plan to rent Feng ? Mr Mitterand (Frédéric) could be interested.

    • I would translate “râler” as “to whine” 😉

      The “oh, let’s not hurt anyone’s feeling” consensus is actually harmful in the long run. Too much left unsaid…

      Like you said, immigrants sometime play along with stereotypes because it’s just comforting when you are immersed in a foreign culture. It’s often a stage though (hopefully anyway).

      • Martin Penwald on

        I’ll translate “to whine” as « pleurnicher » , it is difficult sometimes to find the exact same nuance in words. Like « un con » : I’ve seen a english-subtitled version of « Le dîner de cons » , where « con » was translated by “idiot”, but there is something missing. The simple fact that « con » in french is rude but not “idiot” in english. I can’t find an equivalency for that in english.

        • Welcome to my world as a translator! Story of my life, you have to find the word that fits best but yes, there is often something lost in translation.

  3. Very good article. This is something I have always dealt with, as I have been a foreigner for the most part of my life. The funny thing is that all of the people I meet in the places I live in, they all have a stereotype about Filipinos, and yet, because I haven’t lived like the typical Filipino, I violate their stereotypes. They always tell me that I don’t act how they thought Filipinos should act. Or they would compare me sometimes to other Filipinos they know who do follow the Filipino stereotype, and they would say that I am quite different from them.

    Speaking of which, I also rely on stereotypes. As you said, it’s a useful tool in some way. But they also get debunked, or clarified, when I visit places. I’m in Paris for the Easter weekend, and I have met Parisians who speak English, and waiters that are polite! 🙂

    • A polite waiter? Wait wait wait (no pun intended!)… if he spoke English to boot, it may have been an exile American. Must have been 😆

      I have zero stereotype on Filipinos because this is a culture/country I’m not familiar with, not many Filipinos in Europe I believe.

  4. la partie concernant les chinois ou asiatiques en général est véridique ….oui , ils aiment bien “les bonnes affaires ” .

  5. Sorry but I had to have a little chuckle about you renting Feng!
    I more or less agree with everything you’ve said in this post… I think stereotypes come from SOMEWHERE, so I don’t see why people get so jumpy about them when they come up. It’s a simplification, and so long as we aren’t using them in absolute terms, I have no problems with stereotypes. If they aren’t true, usually they are just funny. A lot of people take themselves too seriously, and everybody and their dog nowadays are speaking out about some injustice in the world. This is great (because let’s all move forward to a better society, people) but it is also exhausting (because sometimes who cares!!).

  6. One of my managers in an organisation about a decade ago said something so wise, I’ve tried to stick with it, he said “Assumptions and presumptions are mothers and fathers of all the fuck-ups”

    Now that I think of it, it might have been a stolen line but it’s pretty much spot-on.

  7. As a NZer who has lived in France, England and now Turkey (and spent time in Peru and America)… certain stereotypes do exist. I like to see them as quirks of the population, ways of life, traditions and customs that are different to the way I grew up and are positive things (to be laughed and joked at with friends but not in a derogatory manner).

    Stereotypes about religions though have made me more sad/angry of late and perhaps I made the same assumptions before living in a country where 75 million people (97% the population) adhere to Islam. The lesson for me is not to read online comments in news articles!

    • I had such a positive experience with all the Muslim people I met and in Malaysia (the only country with a large Muslim population I visited) that I find it hard to buy the “OMG such violent people” stereotype. If anything, believers of Islam here go the extra mile to show that their religion has been misinterpreted by a few crazy souls.

  8. I love this post. I believe that stereotypes do serve a purpose after all, there’s a reason why they are there. They give you a conversation starter at least. The thing is to ask respectfully, like you said, and be open to learn. I feel like people miss out on learning so many things just because they are afraid to offend you. But there are also so many people who are overly sensitive and blame everything on discrimination, intolerance, etc. when the problem might be their own individual behaviour/attitude.

    So much political correctness is tiring. Growing up, my parents and siblings were/are all brutally honest and I think that made me be less sensitive. In my extended family, there is people from different countries too (Mexico, Canada, Pakistan, Honduras, England, Spain), so we have become quite good at making fun of each other.

  9. Je suis désolée mais j’ai piqué un fou rire en lisant cette phrase :I was slightly annoyed in Thai­land where many locals thought I was rent­ing Feng by the hour… mais j’imagine que ce n’était pas tres drole comme situation ds les faits!

    • C’était dans un contexte particulier, celui de Phuket l’infâme (oui, j’ai pas aimé la Thailande…), donc c’était un moindre mal par rapport à ce qu’on voyait autour de nous :-/

  10. Ahhh stereotypes…i don’t like them but i am guilty of making them everyday…
    Btw, Africans are obsessed about soccer too and that’s a very true stereotype ! Especially if our team wins in my home country, then nobody goes to work the next day! Too hangover to function lol
    I was just talking about this with my hubby and i was wondering why people always equate black people with fried chicken and watermelon. I mean i get the fried chicken (delicious!), but i don’t get the watermelon one. It’s weird.

    P.S.= it is annoying when people assume that my hubby and i are different customers in restaurants. I guess i have to take it in stride, right?

    • I don’t get the black people and fried chicken/watermelon stereotype either. I mean, I learned about it here, I think it’s a Southern US thing (and it’s often a stupid stereotype too, a racist one).

  11. I loved your post!! As an Italian born and raised in Italy, I can see some tracts of my background (i was born in Milan but my parents are from the south of italy, where many cultural aspects are different): i love southern food, fish,tomatoes, I love swimming and the seaside. I often speak raising my voice and singing out loud, when I get angry I scream on top of my lungs. But I also like snow, winter, I don’t like dancing or going to the disco, I hate to be late or to wake up late, even if it’s Sunday. I love sports but don’t care about soccer and formula one/motorbike, I don’t like espresso and when I have to understand things better I write them down in English. I think it is extremely important to pay taxes, follow the laws and work hard to achieve your goals. I can make my own pasta, pizza, lasagna but also Asian dishes and north American ones as well.
    😉

    • You are an interesting mix! The best part of knowing yourself and acknowledging the various influences and quirks that made you who you are 🙂

      (Also, we share many common things!)

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