By Dr. John P Fernandez
Although a person’s biases and stereotypes depend on their own unique experiences, at ARMC Global we define concepts like racism, sexism, ethnocentrism, and homophobia as cultural ideologies that characterize the dominant group as being inherently superior to non-dominant groups. People in dominant or in-power groups, through societal institutions, develop, spread, and enforce the myths and stereotypes that are the foundation for their dominant social, economic, and political position. These views become ingrained in the minds not only of the oppressors but also of the oppressed.
Concepts like racism and sexism are cultural. For example, males from certain cultures are more likely than males from other cultures to consider themselves superior to women. However, we can find examples of stereotyped or biased thought in nearly every culture, in all parts of the world: many Japanese citizens perceive Koreans as inferior to them; some light-skinned people from countries such as Brazil, India, and China believe they are superior to the darker skinned people; in Northern Ireland there are still great divides between those of different religions; many men in Middle Eastern countries like Saudi Arabia believe women to be inferior and in a surprising number of societies this inferiority is still formalized by the legal system; and black males in the United States are still perceived as dangerous by the mainstream, predominantly white society, and even by some blacks, as the Trayvon Martin case illustrated. If stereotypes are not challenged, they can quickly become widespread beliefs, eventually turning into society’s norms.
Another unfortunate trend found throughout the world is that the people who believe and adhere to these types of thoughts are often in positions of power and are thus able to develop and enforce the stereotypes that serve as the foundation for their positions of authority in the first place. Often these negativities are not necessarily a matter of personal beliefs or attitudes, but rather accessory expressions of institutionalized patterns within social, economic, religious, and political systems. Whether personal or not, these beliefs have been used to maintain and justify the elite’s social, economic, and political positions, which have also become rooted deeply in the structure and fabric of our societies.
The power struggle between dominant groups who seek to maintain their positions and the outside groups who seek to change the status quo stands at the center of the problems we face today. The fear of losing dominance drives these groups, whether consciously or unconsciously, to nurture myths and stereotypes about the outside groups. When looked at carefully, displays of bias are simply defense mechanisms most often used by the dominant to deal with their own insecurities. These mindsets can be changed, but if they are not, the oppressed groups also start to believe these stereotypes, which compound their psychological stresses. By accepting and internalizing racist, sexist, religious, fascist, homophobic, and ethnocentric assumptions, the oppressed groups can explain and justify their subordinate societal position, making it even harder for them to break through these constructed barriers. This dynamic plays out in much of the world today.
While racism, sexism, extreme ethnocentrism, homophobia, and religious intolerance fragment groups within a nation, xenophobia can bind a country’s major ethnic groups together through fear and hatred of all things foreign. Many people do not view our current political leanings toward xenophobia as negative. For example, some consider the American Tea Party a valid and important political organization, but further examination reveals it should be more accurately classified as a xenophobic movement in the United States. It seems to have an insidious implicit bias against non-whites, immigrants, non-Christians, LGBT individuals, and anyone they perceive as “un-American.” These kinds of ideologies are not exclusive to the United States. In Moscow, young Russian males have taken to attacking people who look physically non-Russian in attempts to “preserve” their country. Additionally, the Chinese minority population of Malaysia, many of whom are often financially successful, is often scapegoated for their country’s difficult economic situations, and at times even brutally attacked. Finally, even Israel, surrounded by enemies and characterized by centuries of oppression, can turn on those who are considered different, as the recent attacks on dark-skinned and immigrant Jews attest.
These types of xenophobia contribute to nationalism and isolationism. The ideas inspire and justify bloody ethnic and religious struggles, as well as unfair immigration laws. The degree and extent of xenophobia in a country often parallels its economic and social status. As economies slow down, as traditional social networks break down, and as the nature of cultures change as a result of ongoing and rapid globalization, xenophobia increases. Instead of accepting and adapting to these changes and challenges, many cultures look for a scapegoat, and they find one in “the other.” A society often convinces itself that minorities, foreigners, nonbelievers, and “alien” cultures are destroying the old order, ruining the economy, or compromising the traditional way of life. While it is true that many oppressed groups internalize and believe in these negative impressions, we can also see that some respond with hatred and violence.
While hatred and violence should never be tolerated, it is possible to trace the reasoning behind this reaction, and the ultimate cycle of stereotyping that it creates. In the face of a dominant majority, those who are oppressed and excluded often feel powerless; despite attempts at contributing to or uniting with society, they are often deemed unfit. Their social status is threatened and their innate sense of competition reminds them of the potential effects of such threats: isolation and estrangement. With few alternatives, violence becomes a subjectively expressive means (or even an end in itself), for it creates clarity in unclear situations.
Further compounding this dynamic is the disconnected nature of modern life and the breaking down of family structures and kin groups. Opportunistic, morally bankrupt politicians, religious leaders, and business leaders have fanned the latent fires of xenophobia throughout the world. Many countries are increasingly susceptible to these trends because of increases in freedom and mobility and a weakening of family ties. And so, while entire groups of people are programmed to distrust or exclude other groups of people, it is the individual alone who must bear the risks of failure. When we analyze this information it becomes clear how the cycles of hatred, violence, and discrimination are perpetuated.
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