By Bula Kalra
Stereotypes are ‘camouflaged’ in our daily life in such a manner that we often fail to recognize it’s presence. They have become so prevalent and normalized that people have adapted their mindsets in accordance with these stereotypes. In almost every realm of life, there will always be at least one such stereotype plaguing social interactions and social behaviour.
In school we’re taught what stereotypes are, and how problematic it is to hold stereotypes about people and things. Ironically, the school environment itself fosters several stereotypes that negatively impact the formative years of young students’ lives. These stereotypes range from gender-based stereotypes to those relating to a student’s intelligence level, or even their personality.
A lot of schools have rule books that prohibit girls from wearing henna, make-up, or jewellery. Therefore, they presume that boys do not tend to do any of these, since these tasks are considered “feminine” and boys would not be interested in them. This is a definitive example of a gender-based stereotype. A lot of co-educational schools attempt to separate boys and girls, simply because they belong to different genders. Some schools have separate staircases for boys and girls, ask them to walk in separate queues, or have classroom seating plans that separate boys and girls.
More often than not, teachers are the ones who cultivate and encourage these stereotypes through their actions and words. They bring the societal stereotypes into the school environment and hence help them proliferate into the minds of the students. This creates a very unhealthy environment and defeats the entire purpose of educating children and moulding them into responsible human beings who are sensitive to the diversity around them. As someone who studied in an all-girls school, I noticed that a teacher once shamed a pair of girls for holding hands, and implying that they’re lesbians. Not only was that extremely derogatory, but it also presented such a gross example of a stereotype.
A student who is creative and more inclined towards, say, fine arts than academics is often considered less intelligent than one who is academically proficient. If a male student cries, he is told to “man up“. If a student appears to be unkempt or untidy, they are labelled a “slacker“.
It is not just the school authorities and teachers who are to be solely blamed for the propagation of stereotypes in school. Many students are often bullied by their peers in school by virtue of their physical appearance, race, caste, cognitive abilities, or other characteristics.
Students tend to form different groups and hold certain stereotypes about other groups or other students, which may also get translated into prejudice. Some students put themselves at a higher social pedestal than others, and refuse to be associated or interact with the so-called ‘nerds’ or ‘dorks’ simply because they perform well in academics.
In a school environment, stereotypes can take many different forms and have a variety of negative implications. However, the most consequential impact of stereotypes is on the minds of young individuals who go to school to learn and inculcate positive ideas, thoughts, facts, and behaviour but instead end up becoming victims of societal stereotypes and negative beliefs.
That is why it is of utmost importance to address this issue and shut these stereotypes down. One effective way to do this is by engaging students in animated and fruitful discussions about such troublesome concepts and ideas that they observe in their school, and help them introspect and systematically replace them with healthy and relevant ones. It is such dialogue that we at Youth Action Hub-India sought to encourage in Week 1 of the School Changemakers’ Program, which was themed Stereotype Shutdown. Engaging in constructive discussion and nurturing empathy and respect is the way forward to end stereotypes, and to end injustice.