While driving my father’s car out to run some errands, I encountered a driver who seemed quite confused about where to go and made many blunders while driving. I caught myself having the urge to assume that the driver was female. So strong was the stereotype of women being poor drivers etched into my brain that as a female myself, even I could not help but also possess a poor opinion of female drivers!
Stereotypes are built from information that we collect from the society around us, including our parents, friends and most importantly, the mass media. This is a very useful tool for the human brain to categorise information about things that are similar in nature so that it is easier for us to retrieve the information or memory that we previously stored. The human brain is bombarded with many responsibilites and has to handle many functions at one time. In the event that we are required to react quickly to a situation without delay, information retrieval has to happen with haste.
This explains why many people, myself included, quickly form opinions about individuals from other ‘categories’ created by society and ourselves. The efficiency of our brains in performing categorisation of objects, animals and individuals, become a double edged sword when these categories get associated with negative feelings. Such an association is known as prejudice and they very often evolved into acts of discrimination which deny members of certain categories the right to equal chances in the society.
A friend once told me about his experience with discrimination while on a tour in Sydney, a state where racism against the Chinese was rumoured to be quite pronounced. His family was commanded to empty their belongings on the floor of a shop as the alarm system sounded when they were leaving. Prior to that was a caucasian who also caused the alarm to go off while leaving but no action was taken against him. The experience finally made him realise the agony of belonging to the discriminated community in the society.
Having lived in Singapore as the majority race has blinded us to the reality of discrimination. Perhaps discrimination did not seem to be a great issue in our country because as the majority of the population, we Chinese are blind to the discrimination as we are the perpetrators and not the receivers of the treatment. As the majority, our community easily assigns various characteristics to the other communities without questioning reasons for doing so. This leads to unfair association of these communities with characteristics that may not be true of their culture and habits. Worse, such associations may even lead to self-fulfilling prophecies where the said communities accept the associations and begin behaving in the manner that others believed they would.
It is therefore important to question the impressions that we form about others before coming to conclusions. Making the mistake of stereotyping individuals leading to prejudice or discrimination is unfair to other individuals and deprives both ourselves in getting to know them better as an unique individual and their opportunities in the society.