Ever been in a room with completely random strangers and you can already tell the kinds of people they are? Most people can – or think they can. That is exactly how labelling and stereotyping starts. There are certain human behaviours that can almost be predicted and passed as just being human; labelling is one of them. Labelling is simply the act of describing someone or something in a word or a short phrase.
In other terms, it is basically attaching a tag to something or someone. It usually comes up with as little as a simple question. A simple “who was here?” question would often be followed with responses like “a short man”, “the Muslim woman”, “some spoilt kids” and as many possible explanations we can think of. All with little or no dialogue between the parties.
The concept of labelling is followed closely with other ‘issues’ like the halo effect, judging, pigeonholing, and stereotyping – stereotyping being extra important. Stereotyping is simply a bias, perspective, or attitude people hold towards those that are outside their own experiences or those who are different. It usually involves an overgeneralization of a certain attributes.
For example, “Africans do not read”, “Black women are angry”, and so on. These typically lead to a distorted view and a major inaccuracy in social perception as most of these are highly derogatory. The deepening issues regarding labelling and stereotyping have, over the years, garnered a lot of weight. Across the world and within Africa, stereotyping has always stemmed from things like gender, race, nationality, or state of origin. All of these have come with so much negativity that it is hard to keep track.
Both concepts have certain characteristics but are completely different things. Labelling is simply a natural form of categorization, while stereotyping is closely associated with prejudice. Labelling is done without much thought and almost naturally – as humans. However, stereotyping is an extremity that comes from labelling.
Basically, if you meet someone and describe him or her as proud or poor, you are labelling. However, where you say Africans are proud, or girls are weak, then that is stereotyping. There are situations where labelling can be good, however stereotyping is usually based on a prior assumption that is most times distorted.
The challenges that spring up from stereotyping did not start today, and probably would not end any time soon. Right from when racism was the order of the day, the stereotype was that Africans or Blacks were slaves or second-class citizens. Also, the war on feminism is hugely attributable to the stereotype that women are weaker or women should end in the kitchen. Even the extrajudicial killing of blacks going on today in the United States, are attribute of the stereotype that black men are violent or thugs. The mounting negativity caused by these today need not be explained – they are visible everywhere.
So today, we have various bodies and personalities desperately trying to change these issues for the better. Anti-racism squads, feminists, the Black Lives Matter campaigns, and so on. While these can be significantly curbed by putting severe laws in place and constantly amending the constitution to ensure that the rights of every sect is covered, these stereotypes will most likely not change – at least not easily. Stereotypes stick like names to new born kids.
Self-stereotyping then comes up. This is a situation where individuals accept stereotypical characteristics – whether positive or negative – and allow these represent them, as oppose their natural personalities. Stereotypes may affect self-evaluations and lead to self-stereotyping. Basically, it is when people let the stereotypes that have been placed on a group that they somehow fall under, to define them.
“It is said that Black women end up in the kitchen; hence, I must forgo my aspirations and end up in the kitchen” or “Africans do not read, hence, I do not read”. These work subconsciously of course. Too many people allow the tags that have been placed on them, define them. This is probably one of the problems in the use of zodiac signs. “Gemini’s are jealous lovers”. Typically, even when these things are not consistent with who we are, we unconsciously bend to them.
Unfortunately social media and the media in general has done more harm than good as regards this. The media paints a picture of what should be or what they assume is, but not what is. It completely shifts our focus from reality and changes it to these stereotypes and skewed perspectives.
It then makes us believe it till it becomes a part of us. If Africa is constantly painted as a suffering nation or an uneducated one, it silently feeds its way into our minds till we believe it. So when we stand with our peers in bigger nations, there might be a bit of reduced self-esteem that would come to play.
At the end of the day, we impose these labels on ourselves and others as a result of these already messed up stereotypes and assumptions. Gender Prejudice, Racial/Ethnic Minority Prejudice, Class Prejudice, Sexism, and more. None of these challenges would come to an end without somehow changing these stereotypes. We need to first be able to consciously identify them, and then ignore them. At least that is a way to prevent self-stereotyping.
However, stereotyping in general cannot be ended as easily – It can only be controlled. The media can also show more uplifting things as regards Africans, so as to curb one part of the racial bias. Also, individually, we need to be able to take the pain of getting to know people before labelling them or placing tags even if it seems like an obvious thing to do.
Labelling by using only positive attributes could also work. Rather than say “that ugly girl”, you can try “the smart girl”. A series of positive labels would lead to positive stereotypes and that might just put an end to the entire menace of it. Let us be the change that we seek and the entire world will follow suit in no time.