We live in a world that is both merciless and generous when it comes to stereotyping. For example, common negative stereotypes assigned to Africans include that we cannot keep time, are financially reckless and therefore unable to invest, have a freeloader or handout mentality, are prone to cutting corners or taking shortcuts in business, have no appreciation for aesthetic surroundings, are abusive towards animals… The list seems endless. 

Interestingly, in cases where an individual contradicts a negative stereotype, he or she is perceived to be “different”, resulting in the proverbial “you are not like them” or “this one is not African”.

If and when a ‘positive’ stereotype is ascribed, it is often accompanied by a negative disclaimer, or it is laced with patronising undertones. For instance, “good at dancing” becomes “only good at dancing”, while “follows instructions perfectly” or “speaks so well” is commonly bestowed with condescending undertones. 

Multi-dimensional impact

The trademark of stereotyping is that we treat individuals of a particular grouping as functionally interchangeable with any other member of that group. In essence, we perceive and define people as part of a specific category and nothing more. Notwithstanding that everyone belongs to at least one group (whether that group is race or gender based), being part of a particular classification is not all there is to a person. There is so much more to each and every one of us.

Read: Why stereotypes of sexy women fans persist at the World Cup

Whether consciously or subconsciously, people tend to make decisions based on stereotypes. The danger of assigning or embracing typecasts include that it perpetuates barriers between races, cultures, religion and genders. It robs people of their individuality, leads to discrimination and racism, lowers expectations and cultivates excuses that hinder progress and productivity. As Nelson Mandela once said, “We slaughter one another through stereotypes, mistrust and the words of hate that we spew.” 

Whether consciously or subconsciously, people tend to make decisions based on stereotypes.

On a macro level, stereotyping is known to affect decisions and policies that have social, economic or national impact. Janet Reno, a former Attorney General of the United States, was acutely aware of this when she said, stereotypes should never influence policy or public opinion.

Consider the following scenarios:

* Stereotyping of immigrants can lead people to live lives driven by xenophobia and can cause those on the receiving end of such prejudices to live in fear.

* Stereotyping in the workplace can mean that certain groups of people are excluded from social activities and passed up for promotion and leadership opportunities.

* Wage discrimination in the workplace occurs predominantly along the stereotypical lines of race, gender and marital status.

* The stereotyping of children within school systems leads to discrimination. This often manifests itself as neglect, exclusion and unfair corrective treatment.

File picture: Homosexuality is criminalised in many parts of Africa, and LGBTI people struggle to imagine a life of visibility and freedom.  Photo: lazyllama/Shutterstock

* Sexual stereotypes suggest that any feminine man is gay and any masculine woman is a lesbian. This, in turn, leads to ostracism.

* Caste systems in society perpetuate stereotypes that lead to practices that are dehumanising and discriminatory.

How stereotypes affect our self-perception

We should never underestimate the extent to which stereotypes influence the way we perceive and treat ourselves as Africans. 

For instance, in social or intimate circles, Africans often joke about stereotypes such as “black man time”. This seemingly innocent practice, however, warrants questions such as: To what extent do we use stereotypes as self-fulfilling prophecies or excuses? How often have we accepted poor standards in the name of “after all, this is Africa?” What ills are we accepting in our communities as a result of embracing stereotypes?

Considering the explicit and insidious effects of typecasting, it is important to accurately assess the level and nature of prejudice and stereotyping in contemporary society and the detrimental effects of embracing such beliefs. 

Read: China’s media struggles to overcome stereotypes of Africa

The global fight against stereotypes

Due to their legal relevance and impetus, the attention given to stereotypes continues to grow. At present, there are international and regional human rights monitoring bodies and mechanisms experienced in addressing stereotypes and discrimination on grounds such as race, gender, religion and disability. For example, the UN Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights has published in-depth reports dealing with stereotyping, for example, “Combating intolerance, negative stereotyping, and stigmatization based on religion” and “Gender Stereotyping as a Human Rights Violation”.

Muslim woman wearing a Niqab.

The Council of Europe and the Inter-American System, United Nations human rights treaty bodies and committees such as Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW) and the Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination (CERD) are further examples. Publications on this topic include Stereotypes and Human Rights Law by Eva Brems and Alexandra Timmer.

There is enough evidence that demonstrates that stereotypes underlie inequality, stigmatisation and discrimination, all of which have far-reaching negative consequences.

On a personal level, individuals need to make a conscious and continuous effort to reassess their prejudices and effect a change within themselves. Self-assessment should then spill over into our communities and various places of influence and, hopefully, give us a voice to call out policies and practices that promote stereotypes. Add to that the efforts of the various human rights bodies and systems and we are well on our way.

Change is a journey. It is often a painstaking process but it remains one that is worth intentionally pursuing.