Categorization and stereotyping
When we encounter someone for the first time, we may not be aware of their cultural or social identities. If we do not have any prior knowledge, we tend to assign individuals to categories based on appearance, age, and the context in which the encounter takes place. This is normal human behavior, as we make sense of the world by putting objects and people into categories. We tend to categorize based on perceived similarities and differences. Obviously, our ability to make viable choices depends on our own degree of experience and knowledge. The less knowledge we have, the more likely we are to fall back on general information we may have acquired informally from friends, family, or media reports. Our mind tries to connect the dots in order to create a complete picture based on the information it already has, which may be scant or faulty. This can provide a very limited, narrowly focused, and potentially distorted impression of the other.
Relying on faulty information leads us to make generalizations that may be far removed from reality. We can overcome the distortion of the "single story", as Nigerian novelist Chimamanda Adichie puts it, in a number of ways (Adichie, 2009). The most effective antidote is to gain greater real knowledge of other cultures through direct contact. That can come from travel, study abroad, service learning, online exchanges, or informal means of making contact. Following news reports on what's happening outside our immediate area can also be valuable, particularly if we seek out reliable, objective reporting. What can be helpful in that regard is to try to find multiple sources of information. Another way to gain insight into other cultures is through stories, told in novels, autobiographies, or movies. The more perspectives we have on a given culture, the less likely it is that we will extrapolate from a single experience to make generalizations about an entire group.
In addition to seeking out opportunities for gaining knowledge about other cultures, what is also needed is to engage with others in a spirit of openness and curiosity. An unwillingness to view others as individuals whose real identity is yet to be discovered, means that we are assuming that everyone in that perceived category is the same, with identical characteristics shared by all. Stereotyping can be positive or negative. There may be, for example, a perception that all members of a given community are smart and hard-working, as is sometimes said of Asian-American students. Indian immigrants to the US are often seen in that light, as a "model minority" (Lee, 2015). More common are negative stereotypes; in the US race and gender groups are often stereotyped. In other cultures, stereotypes may be attached to those from certain regions or who follow particular religions. Even positive stereotypes can be problematic, as they lead us to depersonalize people, treating them as members of a group, rather than as unique individuals. Stereotyping can lead to communication breakdowns, if ones stereotyping of a group is different from the view the group has of itself. We can distinguish between ascribed identities and avowed identities. The ascribed identity is one that we give to either people or groups. Ones avowed identity is the identity we claim as our own. Effective communication occurs when there is a match between the identity we ascribe to others and the identity they avow. Otherwise misunderstanding and conflict can arise.
Stereotyping in turn can lead to ethnocentric attitudes. Ethnocentrism is the tendency to place our own group above all others, while seeing out-groups negatively. Ethnocentrism can have positive effects, namely contributing toward solidarity and cooperation within a community and helping to build pride and patriotism. On the other hand, ethnocentrism can lead to prejudice and discrimination. In the most extreme cases, it can result in racism, which claims a biologically-based superiority for the in-group. While ethnocentrism is a universal and innate human behavior, racism is social and learned. We are more likely to see racism in difficult economic times, when out-groups such as immigrants become scapegoats. Modern science has shown that there is no biological basis for racial categories, as the genetic make-up among humans differs very little (Smedley & Smedley, 2005).
Related to racism is xenophobia, the fear of strangers. Some scholars say that xenophobia is universal and biological. Others point to the fact that xenophobia is often racialized – it can be a fear of only those strangers with a particular racial profile. In German-speaking countries, the German equivalent of xenophobia, Ausländerfeindlichkeit, is used to the exclusion of the term racism (Rassismus). That is likely tied to the Nazi-era appropriation of the latter term. Teun van Dijk's research on racism in Europe points to the fact that although Europeans do admit there is xenophobia in their countries, they see it as a general reaction against foreigners (1987). In practice the xenophobia mostly arises for selected foreigners, namely those with different skin color and religions. The relations among different groups that give rise to prejudice and animosity often have historical causes. The ongoing conflicts in the Middle East, for example, have roots in tribalism and colonialism (see sidebar).
Tribalism in the Middle East
The same north Arabian Bedouin tribes that accepted Islam and spread it by the sword also infused the region with a deeply tribal culture, impacting everything from family relations to governance and conflict. Tribal affiliation is based on descent from a common male ancestor; all descendants are deemed to share common interests and to have obligations of solidarity with one another. Descendants of other ancestors are deemed to have different interests and are seen to be opponents, sometimes enemies. The main principle of tribal life is absolute loyalty to one's lineage group visàvis other groups of the same order and scope: clan vs. clan, tribe vs. tribe, confederation vs. confederation, sect vs. sect, Muslim vs. infidels...Opposition, rivalry, and conflict are thus seen to be in the nature of social life. Success, power, wealth, and, above all, honour derives from triumphing over opposition groups. Failure to triumph means the loss of power, wealth, and, above all, honour.The pervasive and continuous conflict in the Middle East–between clans, tribes, sects, and religions–is a manifestation of this culture.
Addressing prejudice and intolerance
Prejudice "involves making a prejudgment based on membership in a social category. While prejudice can be positive or negative, there is a tendency for most of us to think of it as negative" (Gudykunst, 2004, p. 134). We can be prejudiced in favor of a group or against. Prejudice is tied to group identification. We all tend to think of ourselves in terms of our group memberships, and it is natural to judge our own groups positively. The fact that prejudice is common and inborn is of course an explanation but not a justification. Prejudice can lead to intolerance, an active unwillingness to accept views or behavior different from one's own. Prejudice can take different forms. There is individual prejudice but also institutional prejudice, i.e. prejudice embedded in social policies or institutions. Today in the US we see less "overt prejudice", namely individuals expressing publically strong opinions against particular groups, and more "subtle prejudice", hidden in symbolic language, as when talking about gangs or welfare to really make racial comments. Hiding racism behind symbols or political attitudes is known as symbolic racism (Sears, 1988). Racism may be reflected in the language used by those in power, as in the repression of indigenous languages by colonial powers, for example, Arabic being suppressed in favor of French in Lebanon or in North Africa.
In recent years, there has also been attention paid to behaviors which may be unintended examples of prejudicial treatment, sometimes labeled micro-aggressions (Sue, 2010). Examples in the US context might include such questions as "Where are you from or where were you born?” or “You speak English very well.” Yet, in different cultural contexts, a question as to the interlocutor's origins or affinities may be seen as normal and inoffensive. In a community-oriented culture, such as that of India, such questions may indicate rapport building or a search for common ground on which to base future communication (Malik, 2017). The appropriateness of origins questions depends on context and individuals. It may be evident through intonation or body language that the question is well-intentioned and is being asked in a spirit of openness, curiosity, and good will.
Where are you from? Sometimes not easy to answer
“Where are you from?” As someone who was born and grew up in China, who has spent the last 15 years working in British higher education and lived in Newcastle and London, I often found it difficult to answer the above question in small talk. I can never get it right. If I say that I’m from London, I can guarantee that the next question would be ‘But where are you really from?’. People expect to hear that I am from China or somewhere in Asia. But I feel that I am misleading them if I just give them what they want to hear. I am Chinese, but that is not all. I am a Chinese living in London, a professor in a British university and have two children of school age who were born and grew up in England.
Racism can be seen as an individual trait or as institutional and societal. How we frame the issue can be important in finding ways to address it. If racism is seen as individual, that tends to absolve the individual from personal responsibility in doing anything about it, such as encouraging societal changes (reallocation of resources, changing laws). If racism is seen in social terms, that makes society as a whole responsible, including ourselves. Many of the efforts used to address prejudice and intolerance involve education, that is, increasing intercultural awareness or sensitizing individuals to difference. However, intolerance is complex, involving not only a cognitive side, but also affective (emotional), behavioral, and structural/political components. One approach for addressing intolerance is contact theory, originally the "contact hypothesis," as developed by US psychologist Gordon Allport (1979). Allport suggested that direct contact between members of different groups – under certain conditions – could lead to reducing prejudice and conflict. The conditions for success he laid out, are that 1) there be equal status between the groups, 2) both groups have common goals for the encounter, 3) both groups focus on cooperation rather than competition, and finally 4) the process be supported by an authority of some kind, such as a government agency. This approach has been used effectively in such conflicts as the relationship between Catholics and Protestants in Northern Ireland and in the reconciliation talks between whites and blacks in post-apartheid South Africa. It is the underlying assumption for the benefits derived from school exchanges.
Research by Allport and others has shown that bringing groups together into contact with one another does not in itself provide a guarantee of improved attitudes or enlightened views vis-à-vis the other group. Allport’s contact theory shows that the context and conditions of the encounter will shape success or failure. Even encounters when conducted under ideal and carefully supervised conditions may still have mixed results. That might include benefits for some students and adverse reactions from others, including reactions bordering on culture shock. A story in the public radio show This American Life reports on just such an experience, in which students from an inner-city New York City school, with predominantly Hispanic students from low-income families, visit an elite private school located nearby (see sidebar).
Three miles away and worlds apart
There’s a program that brings together kids from two schools. One school is public and in the country’s poorest congressional district. The other is private and costs $43,000/year...These two schools were three miles from each other, but the students basically needed a foreign exchange program to meet each other...Lisa, the public school teacher, says the moment her kids got off the bus at Fieldston, the private school, they had a dramatic reaction to what they saw: "They couldn't believe the campus. They felt like everyone was looking at them. And one of the students started screaming and crying. Like, this is unfair. This is-- I don't want to be here. I'm leaving. I'm leaving right now. I'm going home."
Melanie [the upset student]: "I know I looked at it and I said, well, I know that we're only being taught to flip burgers in Burger King or McDonald's or to hold doors for students like them that will probably live in those buildings on Madison Avenue. And we'll be wearing the uniform servicing these people."
So that's what she found so upsetting. It seemed that the people around her must believe that this was the natural order of things. Melanie knew there was no innate difference between her and a kid born into wealth. She could see that this division we're all so inured to was not a reflection of her inferior worth or ability..
One of the ways that as individuals we can contribute to understanding and tolerance towards other cultures is to engage in critical reflectivity, (Prayer, 1993), a practice often used in education and workplace settings. The idea is to leverage the knowledge of one's own value system to build a secure sense of identity, enabling greater willingness to accept others. The first step is to examine the norms and behaviors rising from her own racial/ethnic background, gender, and socio-economic status:
The process highlights areas in which assumptions and interactions between oneself and others result in behaviors that perpetuate the marginalization of people who have been oppressed. This process reveals how power and privilege are understood or misunderstood, and how assumptions make a difference in determining whether interactions are productive, hurtful, or destructive (Sisneros, Stakeman, Joyner & Schmitz, 2008, p. 24).
A self-narrative on whiteness
The most influential, factor in my lack of process for self-examination regarding my whiteness was what I now call the “luxury of whiteness.” Because I have never been subject to discrimination on the basis of my race, I have the luxury of being able to easily disengage or distance myself from a discussion on race or racism. The logic of luxury was clear – because I had no race, I did not have to do the self-examining work on my racial identity. That is the ultimate luxury of whiteness: the ability to see myself as neutral and thus excuse myself from any responsibility for addressing racial issues in education, society in general, and most importantly, myself.
Developing a strong sense of self allows us to approach others with more understanding and empathy. This is especially important for those with a privileged status in a society.
Language and Identity
One of the ways we can have more understanding and appreciation of those with different cultures is to learn their language. This provides a view "from inside" that is difficult to achieve without knowledge of the language. In recent years, there has been substantial scholarly work on the relationship between language – especially second language or L2 – and identity. The common perception is that being proficient in another language can add a new personal identity which inherits traits from the culture in which the language is spoken. We may acquire, along with linguistic skills, nonverbal behaviors (i.e. learning how to bow in learning Japanese), cultural preferences in areas such as food or music, as well as a fundamental worldview shared by native speakers of the language. However, we should be aware of the complex relationship between language and culture, which is not the same for all languages. Learning English, for example, a language which encompasses many different cultures, is quite different culturally from learning Japanese, closely associated with just one country.
Modern theories of language and identity have moved away from the focus on the individual psychological effect of second language acquisition to a greater concern with sociological and cultural dimensions. Contemporary scholars study how language learners construct identity depending on the time and place in which they are using the L2. David Block, one of the leading scholars in the area of language and identity, points out that issues of self-identity arise often when individuals move across socio-cultural and language borders. In this sense, says Block, identity can be seen as "contested in nature as the new and varied input provided to the individual serves to disturb taken-for-granted points of reference" (Block, 2007, p. 20). Block and Cameron (2002) used the term "critical experience" to refer to such periods in one's life:
By critical experiences, I mean periods of time during which prolonged contact with an L2 and a new and different cultural setting causes irreversible destabilization of the individual sense of self. There is, in a sense, an element of before and after in critical experiences as the individual's socio-historical, cultural and linguistic environment, once well defined and delimited, becomes relatively ill-defined and open-ended (Block & Cameron, 2002, p. 4).
In such cases, argues Block, it's not a question of discarding one's identity and substituting something new. Rather the result is what has come to be known as "hybrid" or "third place" identities. This hybrid identity creates a subject position that provides insights into different linguistic and cultural worlds. However, it can also lead to feelings of uncertainty and ambivalence, in particular for migrants, who strive to keep aspects of their home culture while learning a new language and adapting to a new way of life. In order to construct a coherent life narrative, we seek to resolve internal conflict and assuage feelings of ambivalence. In that sense, there is a recognition that as individuals we can make choices in terms of self-identity (see sidebar). We tend to take on different available identities depending on need and context. Block points out, however, that in contrast to the open choice of products in a supermarket, we are constrained in our choice of identity by factors such as social hierarchies, educational systems, or government policies. The language choices we make are influenced by a variety of factors. Socio-economic and historical contexts may play significant roles. In formally colonized nations, the language of the colonizer acquired a hegemony over the local languages, which continued even after the colonizer had left. This in turn left a significant impact on the identity that the speakers of the language of the colonizer assumed or were attributed. The speakers of the language of the colonizer were considered to be socially superior or higher up in society than speakers of the local language.
Shopping for identities at the "cultural supermarket"
The cultural anthropologist, Gordon Matthews, argues that identities are not entities into which one is "raised"; rather, one "assumes" an identity and then works on it. Identity is thus seen to develop in what Matthews calls the cultural supermarket: just as the modern supermarket offers foods from all over the world, in all shapes and sizes, so the international media and advanced technology together make available to individuals around the world a range of identities to be assumed.
Block, 2007, pp. 21-22
The dynamics of identity formation has led to an interest within applied linguistics in what is called the imagined community that language learners may aspire to join when they learn a new language (see Anderson, 1991). The imagined community may be a reconstruction of a past culture or a construct of the imagination, a desired community that offers a range of possible identities for the future. Often language learners are motivated by such imagined futures and may develop extensive fictional personae around these possible future selves: "An imagined community presupposes an imagined identity—one that offers an enhanced range of possibilities for the future" (Pavlenko & Norton, 2007, p. 598). Learners of French might envision a future in which they live in Paris and are fluent enough in French to converse in cafés and to read French poetry in the original. The "imagined self" available through a second language might involve personal growth (Dörnyei, 2009). Pavlenko & Norton (2007) cite research that has shown that "many young Japanese women consider English to be intrinsically linked to feminism and thus are motivated to learn it as a language of empowerment" (p. 597). In fact, in many parts of the world English has become the language which represents opportunities for personal growth and professional advancement (see Lin & Byram, 2016). At the same time, English may be seen as an instrument of colonialism and imperialism and as a repressive force on the development of indigenous cultures. The ambiguous attitude towards the social role of English is particularly evident in former colonial countries in Africa (see Miller, 1996).
Another intersection of language, place, and identity is represented in the concept of linguistic landscapes, the often multilingual urban signage now encountered in cities throughout the world (see Shohamy & Gorter, 2008). An analysis of signs in particular neighborhoods can reveal the dynamics of different language and ethnic communities. Examining the changes over time, as Dutch scholar Jan Blommaert has done for his neighborhood in Amsterdam, can show not only how neighborhoods change but also how they identify themselves linguistically (2013). This interest in signs is a branch of semiotics, the science of signs and their significance. Increasingly linguists are looking beyond traditional uses of language to "multimodal" understanding of how communication takes place and how identities are created through language use in context and in combination with other modes of communication.
Food and Culture
Language offers an avenue for involvement in another culture. There are many other opportunities we have to gain insight into other cultures through observation or participation in cultural activities, artifacts, or practices common in these cultures. We might gain interest in learning more about Brazilian or Portuguese cultures, for example, by being fans of famous soccer (football) players such as Pele or Ronaldo. We might be led to want to learn Korean if we are immersed in the world of competitive video gaming. Listening to music from countries with rich musical traditions such as Mali or Argentina might be the path through which we become curious about other aspects of culture in those countries.
One of the things all cultures have in common is food. Eating has an important social function: "Food, like language, exists as a vehicle for expressing culture. It has the power of being both a biological necessity as well as a deeply symbolic cultural artifact, one that connects us to one another on several levels...Food is a mechanism for expressing identity that also has a social purpose" (Food & Identity, 2014). Our food choices are tied to our personal identities and our life trajectories: "The food choices made by people, either as individuals or as a group, can reveal views, passions, background knowledge, assumptions and personalities. Food choices tell stories of families, migrations, assimilation, resistance, changes over times, and personal as well as group identity. "(Almerico, 2014). Food studies is an emerging interdisciplinary field of study which examines the relationship among food, culture, and society from a variety of disciplinary perspectives (Hauck-Lawson, 2004).
Common culinary traditions can be an essential component of national or regional cultures. Familiar meals or dishes that one cannot find when abroad can be a major contributor to homesickness. On the other hand, adapting to the eating habits and food choices of the host country can also be stressful. Individuals vary of course and some people are more accepting and adventurous than others in trying new dishes. The extent to which food represents something more than necessary human sustenance varies among cultures. In the rest of the world, US eating habits are seen as centered on fast food, such as hamburgers at McDonald's. In fact, home cooking in the US is varied and regional specialties abound, such as North Carolina barbecue, Maine lobster, or New England clam chowder. Well-known is the regional richness of culinary traditions in countries such as China, India, France, or Italy. In some cultures, culinary practices are so highly valued, that they even make their way into institutional settings such as school cafeterias. School lunches, for example, tend to be rather simple and basic. In France, school lunches are different: "The variety on the menus is astonishing: no single meal is repeated over the 32 school days in the period, and every meal includes an hors d’oeuvre, salad, main course, cheese plate and dessert." (Walt, 2010). In France, as in other cultures, meals have a particular structure along with must-have components. In addition, there may be certain ritualistic behaviors expected. In Japanese tea ceremonies, for example, there are expected actions for both host and guests.
In many parts of the world modern transportation and distribution have significantly changed the availability of foods. It used to be that fresh foods had limited distribution, restricted to particular times of the year or regions. It is not the case, however, that all have sufficient access to food even in prosperous countries. In the US and the UK, for example, "food deserts" exist in economically disadvantaged urban communities (and sometimes in isolated rural areas as well), where there is insufficient access to affordable and nutritious food sources (Walker, Keane & Burke, 2010). This tends to be in minority or immigrant communities and often leads to health and longevity issues, as inhabitants resort to unhealthy convenience foods or fast food meals. The TED talk by Mari Gallagher discusses the situation in the context of discrimination and social justice. The nutrition situation can be even more severe in areas of the world where drought or civil strife have led to significant increases in malnutrition and famine.
In many cultures, there are hybrid food dishes that are popular, created out of domestic remixing of a foreign dish or culinary traditions. In the US and India, for example, "Chinese" food is very popular, but differs markedly from what is found in China. The TED talk by Jennifer Lee, the Hunt for General Tso, recounts how Chinese food made its way into the US and how American inventions such as General Tso's chicken or fortune cookies are seen in the US as quintessentially Chinese. Another example is the popularity of Indian food in the UK. Then UK foreign minister Robin Cook extolled in a speech the multicultural significance of the Britons' fondness for chicken tikka massala (see sidebar). In Germany, the originally Turkish dish doner kebab has become one of the most popular street foods. Food can represent the kind of successful merging of cultures one hopes develop in communities as well.
"Chicken Tikka Massala is now a true British national dish"
It isn't just our economy that has been enriched by the arrival of new communities. Our lifestyles and cultural horizons have also been broadened in the process. This point is perhaps more readily understood by young Britons, who are more open to new influences and more likely to have been educated in a multi-ethnic environment. But it reaches into every aspect of our national life. Chicken Tikka Massala is now a true British national dish, not only because it is the most popular, but because it is a perfect illustration of the way Britain absorbs and adapts external influences. Chicken Tikka is an Indian dish. The Massala sauce was added to satisfy the desire of British people to have their meat served in gravy. Coming to terms with multiculturalism as a positive force for our economy and society will have significant implications for our understanding of Britishness.