Discussing Stereotypes

The biggest issue for me,  on this day and in the whole training, was the introduction to an input on “The West and the Rest”. I appreciated the input and the attempt to show how categories like “East”, “West”, “European”, and “Oriental” can be deconstructed by looking at the time and place of their creation, and at politically motivated instrumentalization.

What made me feel very uncomfortable was to see this important topic being introduced with the attempt to reproduce stereotypes about “East” and “West” and they way this was conducted:
Refusals to play along were repeatedly rejected and disencouraged by the moderator as well as by parts of the group, which I find to be a disastrous way of dealing with stereotypes. This does not mean that I deny the existence of stereotypes, of course they exist, and are stuck in everybody’s heads, as one person pointed out. In order to make them productive though, it has to be allowed to openly reject them, and express inability to reproduce them (especially when placing random adjectives in either “West” or “East”, without those being further defined. Eastern Germany? Eastern Europe? Eastern Romania? The “global” East?). Otherwise, if the mere fact of their existence defies every attempt at deconstruction, why mention them at all?
It has to be possible to have a proper discussion about both result of the method and the method itself, both of which did only happen in a small circle after the session when lunch was already being served.
I am aware that most people had no problem with this activity though, and that it is probably my “academic bias”, which dreads nothing so much as oversimplification. It is also clear that the group was so mixed that it was difficult to reach and satisfy everyone. Yet, this is place for reflection and further thoughts – so here it goes.

This whole thing left me pondering the question of how to deal with (national) stereotypes in education: Is it okay to invoke them, especially in a multi-national group? How to deal with people who actively reject them? For me, these issues are as central and deserve the same attention as the handling of gender stereotypes. Dealing with them insensitively might cause a lot of damage within a (multi-national) group and cause individuals to feel uncomfortable voicing their opinion.
Furthermore, if we accept the potentially harmful nature of this kind of stereotypes, why not try and act against them? Why not explicitly open a discussion about what makes them so persistent, and about the different functions they have on an individual, social, and political level? I did not attend the Anti-Bias-Workshop, but am generally fond of the idea of creating awareness about personal prejudice and patterns of thinking. Why not create a space in which national or ethnic stereotypes, when they come up, are either immediately discussed or at least made visible, not to shun the individual person but to be able to recognize biases?

During the last feedback round, one participant stated that for her it was rewarding, to meet so many people from Romania, because in the country she comes from, the stereotypical Romanian is a beggar. While this statement is of course potentially hurtful, it also allows many important questions to be reflected upon by everyone in the group individually: Do I feel personally offended by this statement (or not), and why (not)? Do I feel the same as this participant? Did I realize I felt the same before she said it? Would I have dared to say it? Did I suspect that’s what people in this participants country think?
And then, on a more general level: What are the reasons she had this stereotype? In which political/cultural/social/… context was it constructed? And so the deconstruction goes…

To sum it up, this day certainly gave me food for thought. And it convinced me even further that national stereotypes, as well as old tropes about “The West and the Rest”, are still among the most pressing issues to deal with on a European as well as on a global scale.

One thought on “Discussing Stereotypes

  1. Sarah, thank you for your feedback.
    I acknowledge the problematic nature of the exercise. My wish was to move together with the participants in the area of common places and try to deal with them from a distance, and see how they generate from a logic of cultural constructs and hegemonic discourses around what East and West are. On the previous day, at the anti bias workshop, we had discussed and worked on stereotypes: finding their sources and discussing intersectionality, seeing how they are reproduced and in what ways we can stop and prevent them. Still, as the workshop ended late into the night and people didn’t have time to share their presentation in the plenum, i wanted to offer at least a little more space for sharing and discussions.
    My intention was to see how we reproduce the dichotomic thought around artificial cultural constructs such as E-W, concepts that were created and have not originated naturally, as I have tried to show in the presentation. I understand that I made a false presupposition, that participants would think of stereotypes and write them down, and not already filter or avoid them. I wasn’t explicit enough, either. My intention was twofold: first, to raise individual questions in participants about how they incorporate in their identity national stereotypes, how they relate to them, if they accept or reject them. Secondly, to use the stereotypes presented (and here not everyone thought of stereotypes, because i didn’t explain it sufficiently well) in order to have a discussion about what is considered to be east and west, and always move in this shallow waters of stereotypes or preconceived ideas and then see, with the presentation that followed, just how old they are and how they originated, discuss power relations and the artificiality of the terms. My goal was to deconstruct them as cultural constructs in the sequent presentation.
    I am sorry if during this initial activity my moderation was perceived as restrictive, it was not my intention, and, as such, i accepted people wanting to place certain adjectives in the middle on the two columns. I perceived that as a refusal and i respected it.
    Thank you again for your input and for your open questions.

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