Stereotypes. They are everywhere. They cut across colour, race, gender, economic status, educational background. Everything.
More often than not, they are the first things we know before we even discover who we are. Stereotypes are the identities that other people give to us and that we bequeath to others; that wrap themselves around us like a cloak and at the same time, stretch their tentacles to choke other people’s identities, and their uniqueness.
Growing up in Northern Nigeria, I am more than familiar with stereotypes. They even knew me before I knew myself.
However, before we go any further, what exactly is a stereotype?
Yes, I added the underline for emphasis. That is because my point is that the preconceived notion that we have is usually wrong yet. This fact goes on to raise a number of questions, which I will point out later.
First, let me share a little of my experience with a stereotype. I belong to the Ebira tribe from Kogi state in the central region of Nigeria. One common stereotype about my tribesmen is that we are stubborn, aggressive, vengeful and for lack of a better word, wicked.
For years, I have had people make snide comments about my origins. Some would say jocularly, “I hope you are not like your people. You may smile a lot but I doubt that you are nice. In fact, I don’t want to get on your bad side.”
Well, what could I do in such situations but smile? Attempting to defend myself only seemed to prove their point, so as time went on, I didn’t bother.
Another stereotype about the Ebiras is that every female is named Oyiza. Obviously, this can’t be true for no other reason but that it defies logic. Yet, it has not stopped people from assuming that my ethnic name is Oyiza.
In case you are wondering, it is actually Onozare.
Despite these experiences, I have not been confronted with a stereotype as much as when I stayed in the South South region for months during my youth service. I had spent my entire life in the North, except for the few times I visited the East. I had never really considered myself a Northerner even though Kogi State is regionalized as ‘North’, but when I crossed to the other side of the country, I became ‘aboki’.
Aboki in itself is not a bad word. It simply means ‘friend’ in Hausa but down South and in the East, it is usually associated with people who are considered dull. Now, this is as a result of stereotype.
Sure, you may think that this is just one woman’s experience but then, I conducted an online poll and asked for some of the most common Northern stereotypes people had come in contact with.
Roselyn John Kaga a native of Zagon Kataf in Kaduna State said, “It (The North) is tagged as a habitat of primitives and barbarians.”
Rotdirmwa Stephen, an Angas lady from Plateau state added, “Northerners are dull. They are all Hausas. They are neither beautiful nor social. Northerners don’t know how to cook.”
These responses give an idea of the stereotypes that have been perpetuated over time. In fact, I recall that when I lived in the South South, I met an SS2 student who said his teacher had told him that Hausa is a major language spoken in Kogi state. This is how stereotype has seeped into our educational system. What of the Igalas? The Ebiras? The Kabbas? The Basas? The teacher probably did not even know of those tribes and assumed that any state north of hers was filled with only Hausa people.
For too long it has been widely believed that all northern Nigerians are Hausa, Muslim or religious extremists.
You may ask, “Is it just the North that has these kinds of stereotypes?”
Far from it. Other ethnic groups’ identities are rife with a stereotype. For example, people assume that Calabar women are promiscuous; Igbo men are cheats because they love money; Yoruba people are fearful and talkative etc.
Yet, as common as these stereotypes are, they are dangerous. They give us only one side of the narrative, making us forget that there are always two sides to a coin.
Take a look at the average black man in the United States. He has been stereotyped as a gangbanger, a convict or school dropout. The Mexicans are drug dealers, illegal immigrants or domestic help. The Asians? They are the tech wizzes or math geniuses with no social skills. Of course, we cannot forget the typical stereotype of black women – loud, crass and ignorant. The list goes on and on.
Beyond giving us a limited worldview and promoting harmful perceptions, we are not creating a better world for our children. When we continue to hand down a legacy of stereotype, our children grow up to be myopic and offensive. They do not get to see people as individuals but as groups, nothing more than herds going in one direction. If that continues, they will never learn to deal with people on an individual basis.
Stereotyping can also breed problems in communities. When we assume that a person is just one thing, it is bound to cause conflict in our neighbourhoods, workplaces and schools.
Furthermore, research has shown that stereotyping just might force people to become what the stereotype claims they are. This phenomenon is called stereotype threat.
According to series of studies, when a subset of people has been stereotyped, they are more likely to ‘prove’ that stereotype, out of fear and because they are trying so hard not to be that. This was shown when a group of black students were tested and told that the tests were to assess their intellectual capacity. They performed poorly, in comparison to their white counterparts but when the same test was given to them without any allusion to their intellectual abilities, they did remarkably well.
To buttress this point, I will give a scenario. Going back to the stereotype about Ebiras, if someone I did not know had accused me of being overly aggressive simply because of the tribe I belong to, I may argue with the person in an attempt to show how wrong the person is. Driven by fear that I may be confirming what the person thinks of me, the conversation may upset me and take a confrontational turn, thereby making me prove what the person had assumed.
This shows us how stereotypes further divide us by categorizing us.
On the other hand, I recall that as a journalism student in the university, one of the key functions- as we were taught- of the media is to perpetuate stereotypes. This does not necessarily make it right but being a cornerstone function of the media, does that mean that stereotypes are essential for a functioning society?
- Stereotypes can help one make quick decisions when in an unfamiliar environment. Going by this point, this means that if someone from western or eastern Nigeria visits the North, the person may instinctively dress conservatively due to the stereotype that all Northerners are extremely religious.
- Stereotypes make it easier to understand our world by simplifying our surroundings. Human beings are better able to digest information when it is categorized.
- Stereotypes help with memory retention, as it concerns information about other people.
- Stereotypes create a sense of belonging through labelling.
In addition to these, many have defended stereotypes by saying that in most cases, the facts support the stereotype. For example, the stereotype that Hausas do not like formal Western education is supported by the fact that the North has the lowest statistics of literate people in the country, right?
This is where I believe we have missed it. Truly, we may not have as many educated people in Northern Nigeria as much as we have in Western Nigeria but we must understand the fact that there are other indices at work here. Other factors must be taken into consideration when examining issues such as this one. I am referring to factors such as history amongst other ones.
This brings us back to the point I made earlier. There are always two sides to a coin. Your perceptions of a person should not be based on generalizations or appearances. We have seen that though stereotype may help in simplifying our world and giving us an inkling of what we should do when unsure, the truth remains that our world is complex. No matter how hard we try, we can never really simplify it so we should not be using faulty scales to define people.
Some say that stereotypes create a sense of belonging but then that only segregates us even further. If we continue to group ourselves based on ‘things we have in common’, the chasms between different groups will continue to widen. Besides, most of the stereotypes being promoted today are negative so, what sense of belonging is actually being created?
What do I propose?
My recommendation is simple and direct. It can be implemented on an individual level. There is no need for hullabaloo or special legislation. All I ask is that you interact with each person on an individual level. Get to know people for who they are. Discard your suspicions and form your opinions based on their personalities.
If you meet me on the street, address me as simply Angela Umoru; not as an Ebira girl, not as a Christian, not as a journalist. None of those things should be taken in isolation because no one is ever just one thing. We are all an intricate combination of so many things.
Remember that stereotypes are the reason women were told that they could not be astronauts. Stereotypes are the reason men were told they could not be hairdressers. Stereotypes are the reason people have not crossed state lines to explore the world around them. Stereotypes keep us trapped in the past.
It is about time we start to break the mould! Which stereotype are you going to start tearing down today?