June 9, 2013
Personal Reflection on Stereotypes
I worked with my dad during summer breaks. My father was an ambitious businessman who saw opportunity in many things. This particular summer his venture was tourist photography – he obtained a license from the Bahamian government to operate business at the dock where Carnival cruises and others stopped on the island. Here we’d entice eager tourists to take pictures with our Junkanoo man, a symbolic personification of Bahamian culture (our Mickey Mouse, if you will) and instantly provide them with the memory using digital photography equipment. My tasks involved printing, collecting payment, and basic customer interaction. And while smiling and being friendly were job requirements, my dad stressed nothing more than speaking. I’d come to understand the importance of striking up brief yet compelling conversations with our visitors. As he’d always say, “our country depends on it.” I will never forget one such conversation I had with a white female tourist one day. During small talk about the American economy and homes, I made a parallel to our current real estate condition and the woman exclaimed with genuine surprise “Oh, you guys actually live in houses? Like real houses? I always thought like… you lived in huts or something.”
I believe that one important concept is directly involved with many of the somewhat stereotypical views I held about Africa before taking this class. That concept is cultural bias – the phenomenon of judging and interpreting the world by standards inherent to one’s own culture. Taking this class and reading the required material has opened my eyes in many ways, causing me to re-evaluate not only the way I view Africa but the entire world. Before talking about cultural bias in depth, it’s important to talk about culture – what it means and how it affects our thinking.
Culture is defined as “the evolved human capacity to classify and represent experiences with symbols, and act imaginatively and creatively.”1 More specifically, it is the “integrated pattern of human knowledge, belief, and behavior”2 associated with a particular social group. Culture is shared and though it is ever changing and evolving, it is reinforced continually and passed down from generation to generation. Ideas are perpetuated and enduring, requiring very much time and, in some cases, revolutionary activity to overturn. Humans are born into cultures. Withstanding individual differences and contributions, they adapt and absorb the culture of their regions. And in many ways, the influence of one’s culture is beyond the scope of their control. I realize that much of my perception of Africa is a direct result of my culture, and it’s implied cultural biases.
Cultural bias happens when one tries to navigate the experiences of others using the personal compass of their own cultural experience. Since it is impossible to experience every single culture in the world, our cultural experience inherently makes us bias against dissimilar or foreign cultural experiences. Even so, this phenomenon is problematic across the board because it involves ignoring differences between cultures and imposing understanding based on one. It appears it in extreme cases throughout history, particularly African history – early Eurocentrism and an increased belief in European superiority led to a huge rise in colonialism and colonial conquests. Cultural bias also appears in more subtle and tricky ways, however. Today’s textbook writers must be extremely careful not to write with the scope that their culture is ideal or the norm while others are different or inferior. This is very easy to do unintentionally so writers must be always be cautious of the universal standard of behavior in which they must speak in relation to, not their own. This is especially true for disciplines like history and psychology.
Personally, I can say that I have honestly held