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The trouble with stereotypes

Updated Friday 17th July 2015

Tita Beaven explores the fine line between making sense of reality and sweeping generalisations in this article.  

tea being poured into a cup Copyright free image Icon Copyright free: MorgueFile One of the striking features of the programme Are our kids tough enough? Chinese school is how cultural stereotypes emerged in the discourse of the students, the teachers, and the film makers.

A stereotype is ‘a view of an individual or a group of people held by others based on commonly held assumptions that may not be the result of direct, personal knowledge of those people’ (Cherrington, 2000). Stereotypes are everywhere, and they are part of all our lives. They can refer to socio-economic group, race, gender, sexual orientation, nationality, language, accent and many other factors that distinguish people from one another. Stereotypes are useful, in the sense that they can provide a way to categorise what is often a complex world, although at the same time they can oversimplify, overgeneralise, or distort reality. They work because we recognise a ‘kernel of truth’ in them, because they chime with what we think we know about a particular national or social group. In fact, stereotypes don’t just enable us to make sense of others, but they also provide a way to make sense of our own identity.

In The School that Turned Chinese, one of the students, Josh, brings some tea and a kettle to class as his way to disrupt the lessons. The action is evocative because it draws on several cultural behaviours and artefacts that British people hold dear and see as part of their cultural makeup: drinking tea, a mug and a kettle, but also, more subtly, the underdog’s use of humour or irony to be subtly disruptive in a creative way. So when the narrator tells us that a ‘quintessentially British rebellion is brewing’ at Bohunt School, however disrespectful, childish and misguided some might think Josh is being, it is difficult not to also feel a certain sense of secret pride in his actions.

The line between using generalisations as a way to make sense of reality and using stereotypes in a way that is intolerant and bigoted is a very fine one.  As citizens, parents, educators, co-workers, we have a duty to challenge prejudice, which is often based on stereotypical assumptions or ignorance rather than facts, so reflecting on how stereotypes work and how we use them is important. Indeed, this reflection plays a role in the development of intercultural awareness, a highly valued skill in today’s interconnected world. 

Intercultural awareness has been defined as: 

Knowledge, awareness and understanding of the similarities and distinctive differences between the 'world of origin' and the 'world of the target community', including awareness of how each community appears from the perspective of the other, often in the form of national stereotypes.

Intercultural skills and know-how include:

  • the ability to bring the culture of origin and the foreign culture into relation with each other;
  • cultural sensitivity and the ability to identify and use a variety of strategies for contact with those from other cultures;
  • the capacity to fulfil the role of cultural intermediary between one's own culture and the foreign culture and to deal effectively with intercultural misunderstanding and conflict situations;
  • the ability to overcome stereotyped relationships.

(adapted from: Council of Europe, 2001)

The survey on stereotypes

As part of the making of Are our kids tough enough? Chinese school , we asked the students to complete a questionnaire to capture some of their perceptions about Chinese and British cultures. You can take the test too by clicking on the following link: https://www.surveymonkey.com/r/FKDCDPZ

Later on in the summer, we will update you on the analysis of the surveys!

These are the questions in the test that the link goes to:

  1. I know a lot about Chinese culture
  2. Chinese people know how to enjoy themselves
  3. British people care about their children’s physical health
  4. Chinese people care about their children’s future
  5.  Chinese teenagers all think in much the same way as each other
  6. British people have a good sense of humour
  7. Chinese people care about their children’s physical health
  8. The British could learn a lot from the Chinese
  9. British teenagers all behave in much the same way as each other
  10. I want to learn more about Chinese culture
  11. Chinese people care about their children’s feelings
  12. British people know how to enjoy themselves
  13. British people care about their children’s future
  14. The Chinese could learn a lot from the British
  15. Chinese people have a good sense of humour
  16. British people care about their children’s feelings
  17. British people always work very hard
  18. British teenagers all think in much the same way as each other
  19. Chinese people always work very hard
  20. Chinese teenagers all behave in much the same way as each other

In addition, the survey includes some questions about demographic data

 

For further information, take a look at our frequently asked questions which may give you the support you need.

Have a question?