- He's smart, he's Asian.
- Her family is Hispanic so they speak Spanish.
- Italians love pasta.
- He's from Iraq, he's probably Muslim.
- African-Americans can jam.
While you may not think these statements are racist, they are blanket, stereotypical statements that may not be accurate. And just like we buy in to positive stereotypes, we likely believe some of the negative ones as well (even if we don’t want to admit it). But what is most damaging about stereotypes (positive or negative) is that they interfere with our ability to connect and form relationships with individuals.
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Is stereotyping a form of racism?
Just like racism, stereotyping carries a negative connotation as racism does. But is stereotyping always negative or ill-intentioned? Before we answer that question, let's look at the definition of a stereotype.
According to Webster, a stereotype “represents an oversimplified opinion, prejudiced attitude or uncritical judgment.” While you may not consider yourself prejudice, you may hold oversimplified opinions about groups of people that are stereotypical in nature. And if we pretend to know things about an individual based on our knowledge or experience about their group, we are giving in to stereotypes. Stereotyping, just as casual racism,"is as much about impact as it is about intention." (Australian Human Rights Commission). Even if you may not intend to harm, pander or patronize, or even if your assumption is accurate, stereotypes are offensive nonetheless, and there is no place for them in schools.
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I entered the education profession as a CTE Business Education teacher when my husband and I moved to the town of Sparta, North Carolina in 1996. Prior to our move, we lived in Miami, Florida. Sparta and Miami are drastically different - demographically, geographically, socioeconomically and in every which way. Despite being fluent in English, well-educated, having traveled throughout the United States and vacationing in the Sparta area many times, I soon realized that I had no idea what it was like to live outside of Miami. Growing up Cuban in a predominantly Cuban community, I had never experienced racism or stereotyping of any kind. That is until I left my hometown. "Are you a Spanish teacher?"
The first time someone asked me that question after introducing myself, I chuckled and thought, “How crazy, why would they think that.” But then I heard it time and time again. At one point, I talked about this with a colleague and they responded, well it's because you have a Spanish last name. My response was, "Well, if my last name was Jones would you assume I am an English teacher?" At that point in time, Sparta was not very diverse. However, it's 20 years later and despite living in a much more diverse community, I occasionally get the same question. I also hear comments about my features and my accent. I happen to be racially Caucasian and green-eyed, so I often hear, “but you don’t look Mexican" when they learn that I speak Spanish. I usually respond by reminding those individuals that Spanish is spoken in over 20 countries. Thus, not all Hispanics and are Mexican and we come in all colors, shapes and sizes. Even those that know I've lived in the United States since I was a toddler, often comment on my lack of Spanish accent. It's clear that in the mind of those persons, Hispanics are Mexican, olive-skinned and speak with a Spanish accent (and who knows what else they may be assuming).
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Let’s look at some examples of widely held stereotypes about Hispanics.
- Spanish Language Skills. Not all Hispanics are fluent in Spanish and if they speak Spanish, they may not be literate. Do we assume that Americans of German descent are fluent and literate in German? Generally, we would not.
- Food. If the only Hispanic food you’ve eaten is Mexican, you have no idea what you’re missing. I love Mexican food, I actually like it better than Cuban food, frankly, but they are quite different. Most Hispanic foods are not spicy, although it’s safe to say most recipes call for exotic spices and condiments, similar to French and Italian cuisine.
- Religion. We can’t assume that the predominant religion of a given territory is observed by everyone in that area. Not all Hispanics are Catholic, not all Middle Easterners are Muslim, not all Asians are Buddhist…and so on. And even if they identify with the predominant religion, they may not observe it the same way. For example, Day of the Dead is a Mexican holiday celebrated on All Soul's Day. It is not a Hispanic holiday.
- Socioeconomics. Not all Hispanic immigrants are poor and/or uneducated. While many families do immigrate for economic opportunities, many immigrants are professionals from upper or middle-class backgrounds. And while some families may be struggling financially, it may be a temporary situation and most importantly, not indicative of their educational background. Which brings me to the next point.
- Educational Background. I’ve had students whose parents are blue-collared workers, but in their home country they were doctors and lawyers and are unable to practice due to licensure requirements, English language proficiency level, or perhaps they are transitioning to a new career. On that note, we can’t assume literacy skills either. English language proficiency is no indicator of an individual's level of intellect.
- Physical Features. I always say that Hispanics come in all colors, shapes, and sizes. And this applies to all ethnic groups. The world is a very small place and we have ancestors from all over. The Americas - North, South, Central and the Caribbean - was conquered by Europeans settlers and many of them (sadly) brought African slaves.
- Family Dynamics. Some students may live with only one parent, but they are not necessarily a broken home. It’s not uncommon for one immigrant parent to move to the United States prior to the rest of the family or send their kids to live with an older sibling or extended family. Sadly, some families are separated due to immigration issues or incarceration and while we can't pry, we should never assume the level of support available at home if you assign homework regularly. For some you may be pleasantly surprised, but don’t be quick to assume students are lazy or apathetic when their home life includes childcare and housekeeping responsibilities.
- Academic Interests and Potential. Many Asians are indeed smart, but making a blanket academic achievement assumption is unfair, just as it is to assume about the intellect levels of other minority groups. High achievers come in all colors, shapes, and sizes. Moreover, just because their older siblings or parents were not high flyers, doesn’t mean that student in your classroom will not be.
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While I address this issue from a Hispanic perspective, most notably my personal experience, one can find parallels across all subgroups. Bottom line, there’s no room for stereotyping at schools. But how do we combat our own personal biases and perspectives? First and foremost, never, ever assume. Maintain an open mind and give everyone a blank slate. In doing so, consider the following:
- Read up and listen before you ask. Note that order. Listen and take note before asking, so we avoid unnecessary, inappropriate questions. There are certain questions that are illegal for educators to ask, such as regarding immigration status.
- Think carefully before asking questions. For example, instead of asking, “Are you Mexican?” ask them where they (or their family) are from? Rather than assuming that a parent doesn’t speak English, ask if they prefer documentation in another language. For example, Brazil is located in South America, but their official language is Portuguese and while it's a bit similar to Spanish and many Brazilians understand Spanish, it is not their native language and we shouldn’t expect them to be able to read it.