Since moving from Puerto Rico to the U.S. when she was four years old, English teacher Coral Brignoni has been unable to escape the stereotypes tied to her race. She may have been born a U.S. citizen, but her dark hair and skin color consistently influence how the world perceives her.
As a major sector of racist remarks and a common reinforcer of discriminatory beliefs, these racial stereotypes can be constant reminders that race remains a source of division between people everywhere. From joking among friends to malicious statements meant to cause pain and exclusion, the ways in which stereotypes affect minority individuals are diverse.
Being Hispanic, Brignoni is often misidentified as Mexican; she hears comments that reflect stereotypes about Mexicans and witnesses the stereotyping of Spanish-speaking countries.
“Mexico and Puerto Rico are two different countries. I always have people ask me if I speak Mexican, or if I like tacos, [but] there’s a distinctly different culture between Puerto Rico and Mexico,” Brigoni said. “They are not even close.”
Brignoni feels that spreading and reinforcing this kind of inaccurate stereotype can put a negative lense over how people view each other.
“Stereotypes lead human beings to make assumptions about other people,” Brignoni said. “So that would be my biggest caution, not a specific stereotype or phrase, but more so just being aware of how stereotypes can influence your thinking about other people and how far off-base they actually can be.”
These kinds of stereotypes have become embedded and subsequently created a ground for psychological and structural violence against minority groups. Communications teacher Sohail Jouya – who is of Persian and Kurtish ancestry – comments that his skin color places him in a group strongly tied to racial stereotypes.
“Islamophobic racism has been a central component of life for most Muslims,” Jouya said. “Tropes of being violent, irrationally aggressive, and a threat is oftentimes coded onto people who look like me.”
Unfounded and irrational stereotypes are exacerbated even within school; freshman Gabby Delpleash has witnessed school faculty make comments that perpetuate inaccurate assumptions.
“Today specifically, one of my teachers insinuated that black people couldn’t swim,” Delpleash said.
Other teachers seek progress toward racial acceptance. Brignoni uses her class as an opportunity to open the floor to discuss these kinds of stereotypes. She’s come to the conclusion, after years of teaching, that people’s natural tendencies to judge often evolves into the harmful negativity that feeds malicious behaviour.
“It’s a natural inclination for us to want to categorize people, but unfortunately stereotypes have gotten so out of hand that most of them have become negative,” Brignoni said. “And we talked about it in class quite a bit. They started to try and come up with stereotypes that they’ve heard, and none of them were really very nice.”
Jouya, on the other hand, believes that mere discussion about stereotypes won’t produce any solutions for resolving these issues, but rather that an in-depth anti-racist training and curriculum is necessary for improvement.
“I’m actually not always sold that discussion of stereotypes themselves are particularly fruitful enterprises,” Jouya said. “I do believe that serious anti-racist training for employees and students would be a great idea and is long overdue.”
An awareness of racist behavior that would be brought about through such training would actually be able to resolve many instances of racism that happen in the educational sphere, according to Jouya. It would allow for those issues to be stopped before they become more of a problem.
“We’ve seen countless stories of white undergrads getting kicked off campus for using racial slurs, wearing blackface, and a number of other racist gestures,” Jouya said. “I can’t help but think that a number of those incidents could have been preemptively diffused by even the slightest of racial awareness training in K-12 education.”
However, stereotypes don’t always result in hateful comments. Junior Manoj Turaga and his friends commonly joke about being him being a “tech savvy Indian” – a stereotype often associated with his race, but one that accurately describes his own talents. Under these circumstances, he doesn’t see the harm in joking about it.
“I don’t think it’s bad; I like to take a joke. And certainly, I’m a different kind of person than most people in the world – I don’t get offended by things at all,” Turaga said. “Certainly, the things that people say to me, some people will get offended [from]. And I’m not the person to judge whether it’s racism or this stuff is okay; that’s up the person [the comments are directed at].”
Turaga notes that these comments sit differently when they come from strangers, though he recognizes that people don’t always have harmful intentions when joking about stereotypes.
“It is kind of weird, but they usually mean no harm. I don’t mean any harm whenever I do things [like that], and I hope that’s the case with them too,” Turaga said.
Brignoni describes how they can be a reflection of ignorance about a race’s history and culture.
“I think some people don’t realize what some stereotypes are based on,” Brignoni said. “They may go back to a time of war or time of oppression for certain people. Also, I think just people [say things] they’ve heard and they don’t realize the effect that it has on people.”
For instance, she has seen stereotypes represent misinformation.
“I’m surprised [by] how many people don’t realize that Puerto Rico is a Commonwealth of the United States, meaning that I am a born citizen,” Brignoni said. “Whereas some people will sometimes be like, ‘Do you have a green card to be in America?’ and I’m like ‘No.’”
Many minorities like Turaga exchange joking stereotypes as lighthearted fun, and others like Brignoni opt not to use them at all.
“You can make a heck of a lot of funny jokes without stereotyping somebody or at the expense of someone else’s culture,” Brignoni said.