Stereotype: ” … an unvarying form or pattern; a fixed or conventional notion or conception, as of a person, group, idea, etc, held by a number of people, and allowing for no individuality, critical judgment…“
Stereotyping is both damaging and frustrating- it holds us back, is at the root of most prejudice and limits individuals.
When we stereotype, we heavily place our expectations on to a person. As a person, who in many ways does not live up to her stereotype as a gay woman*, I have now learnt to revel in the hilarity of people’s reactions when I bust my stereotype out of the sky. But it hasn’t always been this way. I used to find it incredibly frustrating and hurtful – raised eyebrows, the frequent: ‘Oh my God, really. You? Surely not.’ They were never meant cruelly, but still read as an invalidation of me. I used to feel down about it, questioning myself, because other people seemed to question me. There were times I even considered altering my physical appearance to conform to my stereotype, I felt I’d fit in better that way, if I became someone people could easily identify and understand. It would have left me with a lot less explaining to do and justifying of myself to others. I didn’t, because I wouldn’t have been me. I eventually found a way to barrier myself against the comments, to be proud, to not to give in and conform to my stereotype simply for a quiet life.
So, there you see the danger in stereotyping, if we lay expectations on people often enough they may begin to fulfill them. When we look with shock at the five year old girl that tells she wants to be an engineer, or query the boy that plays with dolls, when we look surprised at the cockney that’s an expert in quantum physics or congratulate lesbians on ‘retaining their femininity’ (true story) we’re displaying -even if it’s not intended – a suggestion of nonacceptance. It’s not about just changing our language, but challenging the way we think. Humans are intuitive, even the twitch of a raised eyebrow, the widening of eyes or the tone of voice shifting slightly can reveal our prejudice.
I try to react to the five year old girl in the exact same way I would as if she’d told me she wanted to be a gymnast or a princess (the most common two answers for this question from 5 yo girls) . Because even offering a ‘wow’ -with a raised eyebrow, or a ‘that’s unusual’ offers a hint of suggestion that her choice is different and unexpected. And no one wants to feel different. And that’s perhaps the moment when we begin to adjust ourselves to conform to our stereotypes, missing the opportunity to break new ground.
We like to know what’s what, us humans. We love putting things neatly in to their boxes, where we can sit and look at them, and understand, admiring the beauty of how nicely it all worked out. Stereotypes are comforting, we know what to expect of people. It’s an ignorance, a lack of understanding, thought or compassion.
So Lottie, throw your expectations out of the window. Expect nothing of anyone until they tell you it’s so. In our society, without even thinking, we stereotype people continuously based on gender, sexuality, ethnicity, income, accent, and even by the clothes they wear.
Diversity is key in society for us to grow; when diversity meets it has great potential to create a breeding ground for new thought and idea, for development and progress, if only we let it. If we all fitted in to the boxes previously created, there’d be little variation and nothing to learn from. There are as many ways to live a life as there are people. We are complex beings, made up of nature and nurture – events and experiences shaping who we are, they tangle together to make the fabric of us and by not limiting ourselves with thoughts of conforming to stereotypes; we can achieve truly marvelous things.
It all comes back to that old chestnut: Be Prepared to be Surprised
*(more detailed blog coming to London Tails about this soon)
Let you expectations fly – melt away – underneath find fresh green shoots, the growth of possibility, the notion of anything goes. The more diverse we are, the more we bring to one another – the more humanity can progress.