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Overcoming Cultural Stereotypes

November 4, 2022

Natalie Kim

Stereotypes exist in every culture. A stereotype is a fixed image or idea of a particular person or thing that's widely accepted by any group. Stereotypes affect the way we think and categorize things. Our brains use stereotypes to process information quickly, especially when encountering people from different cultural backgrounds. Often, stereotypes are associated with 'images' that appear to be true. One of the common examples is racial stereotyping. Jenell Williams Paris, in her chapter "Thinking Critically About Culture, Race, and Color," explains the danger of stereotypes, specifically on race and culture.

"A stereotype conveys information about an individual based upon the individual's group. By assessing an individual as 'Black,' 'Asian,' or some other race, the observer now supposedly knows something about that individual. Stereotypes provide a shorthand way of knowing a person, or a reason for avoiding a person altogether."¹

Before furthering the discussion of stereotyping in culture learning, I'd like to distinguish between stereotyping and generalization. Stereotyping is a form of oversimplified categorization based on our familiar interpretations and experiences, without any thorough examination or constructive understanding. We tend to quickly process new information to make sense of the situation or experience. Stereotyping is, therefore, our way of coping with anything different or unfamiliar to us.

Generalization, on the other hand, takes on existing stereotypes but is more focused on the widespread information that is obtained by a larger group of people. The goal of generalization is to start with what we already know about the person or thing and examine the specific situation or group.

To overcome cultural stereotypes, we must have a growth mindset, or a learning attitude toward another person's culture. People with a growth mindset start with generalizations that might have been shaped by stereotypes, but they turn that into an opportunity to learn deeper and overcome those ideas. In the process of learning, they gain a new perspective and personalized experience. A fixed mindset is a way of thinking that inhibits progress. Someone with a fixed mindset is stuck in the stereotypes.

One of the exciting things about learning another culture is having a personal learning experience through active involvement and engagement in a new place with new people. People are not 'images' to think about and watch. They are individual beings created in God's image with diverse cultural backgrounds. As you start your culture learning, you will be surprised by how much everyone is similar and different. You will also experience the beauty of God's image embedded in every person and every culture.

¹ Jenell Williams Paris, "Thinking Critically about Culture, Race and Color," Robert J. Priest and Alvaro L. Nieves, eds., This Side of Heaven: Race, Ethnicity, and Christian Faith, 1st edition. (Oxford; New York: Oxford Univeristy Press, 2006), 26.

Natalie Kim, EdD, is training coordinator and curriculum designer at CultureBound. She has led culture courses for long-term missions. Currently, she is directing the Culture Tree Project for TCKs. Natalie earned her EdD in intercultural education from Western Seminary.


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