In our book, Leveraging Diversity at Work, Sylvester Baugh and I write about the dangers of stereotyping. The Buddhist parable about the six blind men and the elephant wonderfully illustrates these dangers. One day, six blind men traveled to a village to meet an elephant that had wandered in. After laying their hands on the elephant, they began describing what they perceived. The man touching the tail said an elephant is just like a rope. The one touching an ear said an elephant was like a large hand fan. The man touching his leg said an elephant is like a pillar. The one touching his massive belly said an elephant is like a solid wall. The man touching his tusk said an elephant is like a pipe. Finally, the man touching the trunk said an elephant is like a snake. The men began to argue about the reality of this elephant, each of them certain they were correct based on their personal experience. They argued and argued until a seeing person came alone. Once he became aware of the ruckus, the seeing person asked what the problem was. Each blind man shared his story. The seeing person said, “Ah, I can see the problem. You are all touching a different part of the elephant, causing you to have different experiences.” With this new information, the blind men were able to understand and find agreement.
Let’s remove the seeing person from the story. The blind men argued until dinnertime, when they all stomped off to their own homes. When their wives asked them what the elephant was like, each man described their idea of what an elephant is. The wives, having no experience of their own, accept the explanation from their husbands, a trusted person in their lives. Later, these wives teach their children about elephants, and they teach their children, and they teach their children, and on and on for generations. We now have six different ideas about elephants that are true for one part of the animal but not the whole. Stereotypes are like that too; they’re sweeping generalizations that may be true for some people in the group being discussed, but not all. Unfortunately, stereotypes are dangerous because they often lead to prejudice, intolerance, and oppression.
I recently had the honor of hosting a Choice Theory psychology training session in Chicago. President Trump had just decided to pull out of the nuclear arms deal with Iran. During that same week, Israel and Iran decided to lob missiles at each other, and sitting in my class was a Jewish Rabbi and an Iranian doctor, taught from an early age to hate each other. What is that hate based on? Inaccurate stereotyping.
Why do we stereotype? It comes from our desire to know more than we do and an inability or inadequacy to seek more information. Even positive stereotyping is bad because it is never true for all members of a group. Every group has some general commonalities that are often turned into harmful stereotypes. It is never good to think you know something about someone just because they are a member of a particular group. I am a woman, it’s true, but don’t assume I’m an emotional drama queen. That is not my reality. I am a white woman but don’t think that means I am not aware of privilege. I live in Chicago but do not share the stereotypes of city dwellers, whatever they are.
Stereotyping leads to distance, which leads to judgment, which ultimately leads to discrimination and oppression. When I think I know something about you, I don’t need to know any more. I can comfortably distance myself from you while judging you, and if I have power, I may use it to power over you in some way.
In 2007, after publishing my book about diversity, I was invited to present the keynote at a military conference in Hawaii. It was an incredible opportunity for me, not to mention my first trip to Hawaii. I am a public speaker who speaks for a living, yet leading up to that conference, I had no clue what I was going to say to that group. Do you know why? I didn’t realize it, but I was carrying some negative stereotypes about members of the military. I was unaware of these ideas that had formed within me four decades earlier during the Vietnam War.
I was about seven years-old when the war was happening. I didn’t pay much attention to the news, but I would occasionally see returning soldiers and their reception. I remember them being spit on and called ‘baby killers.’ It never occurred to my parents to process this information with me, so I had no perspective or context to put this information in. As I grew up, I had no contact with people in the military – no family members, no friends, and no acquaintances I can remember who served. I did have some classmates get in trouble in high school and they were given the choice to go to jail or go in the service and they opted for the latter, but that only solidified my stereotype. I had decided people in the military were control freaks and why would they want to listen to me and my message about treating people as individuals?
What a lesson that was for me! Unbeknownst to me, I had developed this awful stereotype of people in the military. The nature of stereotypes is that they are untrue for everyone of the group. I should have realized this since my youngest son was in the Army at the time! I knew and even loved his Army friends. I knew the only antidote for stereotyping is personal experience, so I delivered that keynote by confessing my stereotype, analyzing the anatomy of it, and vowing to gain new information. By gaining authentic, personal experiences, I could change the messages from my childhood. I became an MFLC (Military Family Life Consultant) and currently work as a speaker for military Yellow Ribbon events where I meet the gamut of military people: from kind, warm, and loving, to the control freaks I once believed they all were, and everything in between. I learned that military people are no different from the general population. Despite some of the similarities they share by being members of the military, they are a mass of individuals who have different knowledge, beliefs, and values based on who they are and where they come from.
This is exactly what the Rabbi and the doctor learned. Within the context of Choice Theory, they were able to choose to belong to an additional group—the group called Choice Theory practitioners. Within that group, it made complete sense that they be friends, which is just what they did – got to know each other and became friends. What stereotypes are you harboring?