Diversity education key to moving past stereotypes


I have recently come to the realization that communication barriers exist all around us, most of them invisible to the untrained eye. These barriers are also known as stereotypes, which take the form of generalizations, cloudy facts and sometimes downright myths about a particular group of people. They are perpetuated by the media, our friends and family, and many times it’s completely on accident.

Harald Prins, professor of anthropology, said there are several ways stereotypes pop up, but the media plays a large role in their distribution.

“Mass media such as newspapers, radio, television and the Web play an enormous role in the global distribution of information as well as misinformation,” he said. “That misinformation may be because the facts were not checked, but may also be deliberately manufactured in order to mislead people. Actually, propaganda can be very effective. This is true when segments of the public keep themselves uninformed, are uncritical and welcome ‘facts’ reinforcing a simplistic world view dividing humanity in ‘good’ and ‘bad’ people.”

Prins said he describes stereotypes as a “double-edged sword.”

“They offer shortcuts, which may be useful when there is no time or opportunity for more in-depth and accurate assessments,” he said. “But they also shortchange us by depriving us from a fuller and more truthful experience of the other. Of course, negative stereotyping makes constructive communication difficult, if not impossible.”

While they might hold some truth, I think we as a society rely on stereotypes far too often, which is why I see so many unnecessary arguments and misunderstandings occur. I hear people making generalizations all the time, as I do too.

Do I think they can be appropriate giving time, place and manner circumstances? Yes. Some stereotypes can be humorous, as long as the intention is just that. Some of the best jokes I’ve ever heard were Catholic jokes. As a Catholic, I don’t see the harm, provided they aren’t full of loaded statements that convey hate toward my religion. I’m sure the same thing goes for other groups. The best way to determine is to ask a member of the group in question, and the easiest way to determine if a joke contains a loaded statement is to look at the message.

So, how do we get over this communication barrier we know as stereotypes? I think the answer is simple: educate oneself about diversity and ask questions.

Prins said he recommends doing just that.

“Since each of us is shaped by the cultural context within which we are born and raised, I think it impossible to understand any actor in our global theater without a background check,” Prins said.

K-State offers many courses that can help students learn about a wide range of people and viewpoints. Some of those classes include Introduction to Cultural Anthropology and Culture in Context, as well as classes in women’s studies, American ethnic studies and even history.

I have taken several of these courses and I found them eye-opening, not only because of what I didn’t know, but what stereotypes I actually took for fact beforehand. These classes were important to my development as an adult because they showed me what to look out for so as not be labeled as a bigot or insensitive to others.

I think if we take a step back and try to see where others are coming from, we as a society will be able to stride forward.