Reflecting about our reflections

"Why do we stereotype? And what are some of these stereotypes?" The professor asked before reclining slightly into his chair.

The class was quiet, unwilling to comment.

"Any Chinese in here? China Chinese students?" One hand went hesitantly into the air. "Ahh, can you state some stereotypes that others have of you? Other students, feel free to contribute too."

What are we supposed to say? We who are so comfortable with labeling others. We couldn't say such stuff out - any stereotypes that we have, they are all negative. They tend to be insulting. No, we couldn't say them out; it reflects badly on us.

"They are diligent people," someone volunteered.

"They eat everything," someone else said. 

The rest, they kept quiet.

They were probably thinking about the uncouth and harsh enunciation of these Chinese people. They were probably thinking about competition for grades, university places, accommodation and job opportunities. 

"When we stereotype, we rarely does so on an even keel. There's always a hierarchy. We place people - by large groups - below us so that we feel better about ourselves. We cast them as the Others." The quietness was awkward.

"Take the Jews for example. Stereotypes went from something innocent to terribly devastating. It started with observations that they are mathematically inclined and hardworking. To fears that they are dominating the markets. To jealousy of their successes. And to the Holocaust."

"Or the Indonesian Chinese. For years, they weren't even allowed to speak Chinese. There are many cases of discrimination throughout history. If you analyse them to their roots, they are all due to stereotyping."

In a way, we were thinking about the way we think. It was an uncomfortable class - everyone felt as though they weren't good people, so full of stereotypes they were. They went in, unaware of the tinted lenses they were wearing. 

It was an awkward session, no doubt. But it was a necessary lesson.