One of the ways in which our brain processes the humongous variety of information it has to sift through is by looking for underlying patterns and similarities and then reducing them into simpler categories and sub-categories. It’s a system that works well while dealing with the non-human diversities…living beings can be broadly classified as plants and animals, where animals again may fall under vertebrates and non-vertebrates or if you want a more comprehensive picture of the natural world you could include other micro organisms and further divide them among four other kingdoms. Such generalisations are useful for our better understanding of the environment around us. The trouble begins when you apply a similar process to place people around you under ‘labels’ and make assumptions based on these sweeping generalisations; when you begin to typecast others and even worse start pigeon-holing yourself to “fit into” the stereotype.
Stereotyping has been called an ‘insidious process’ for what may begin as a necessary tool of understanding becomes a rigid and stifling label, both for the individuals who are labelled and for the general category itself. Just take a look at some of the stereotypes we live with…doctors have a terrible handwriting; female-drivers are the dodos on the roads and as for expecting one to parallel-park—nah that’s asking for the impossible; if you’ve studied engineering how can you be a DJ, something you take up only if you don’t like studies; men don’t don the apron and get into the kitchen for organising the family dinner and neither do women wear overalls and tinker in the garage; as for our country’s cultural context we have umpteen number of them…the sardarji and the twelve o’clock time, all South Indians are ‘madraasis’ just as all those from North-East are “chinkis”, a Bengali has to love fish just as a Punjabi has to love butter-chicken (vice-versa is pretty unthinkable!), a Bihari and an impeccable English accent cannot happen…it’s an endless list. Many of these labels can be hurtful at times, specially when you are at the receiving end…something i experienced during a train journey many years back. The other passenger with me first made some veiled comment about the ‘ultra-modern’ book i was reading being a contrast to my demure salwaar-kameez-dupatta-bindi ensemble and then upon her asking when i told her which region i belonged to she actually remarked that she was surprised women from that part of the country could even speak in English!! Totally flummoxed i couldn’t figure out whether to be offended by the statement or to pity her for her prejudices. Out of respect for her age all i could mumble was that since she didn’t travel much she was probably unaware of changes taking place in our country! Now when i think about the incident i understand she was the ‘stereotype’ of those people who perceive selectively through the screen of their own particular attitudes, values, beliefs and especially personal experience. No matter what we say, they hold the category and its properties intact.
What i really find heartening is that in this new-millennia-world-order more and more people are beginning to challenge the most solid ‘givens’ To break out of an entrenched stereotype is not easy and yet many examples are proliferating around us. At the age of 50 a yesteryear model completes a triathlon to win the title of ‘Ironman’; three women have set out to do a road trip covering thousands of miles across continents; a practising Doctor has his own rock band that performs all over; a couple in their seventies actually deciding to dare the elements by sailing around the world…stories that teach you~~”Stereotypes do exist but we have to walk through them”