Stereotypes abound in popular culture, and helping students learn how to identify and problematize them is one of our most important tasks as educators. Chimamanda Adichie reminds us in “The Danger of a Single Story” that the “problem with stereotypes is not that they are untrue, but that they are incomplete. They make one story become the only story.”
In my Global Thinking course, whenever we study a new place, our first step is to identify our common stereotypes and preconceived notions about that place. So, when we began studying African history, we explored some common stereotypes of Africa, with most students able to see that our media culture is saturated with images of Africa as desolate, underdeveloped, poor or even unpeopled and full only of animals. They sensed the manifestation of philosopher Hegel’s observation in his text The Philosophy of History that “Africa … is the Unhistorial, Undeveloped Spirit, still involved in the conditions of mere nature.” My students and I were able to complicate this image with help from this map, this Trevor Noah bit, this video and my students’ humanistic desire to understand people how they really are, not how we imagine them to be.
They were still challenged when we looked at media that presented Africa in a negative light. In “Taylor Swift Is Dreaming of a Very White Africa,” authors Viviane Rutabingwa of Kenya and James Kassaga Arinaitwe of Uganda take Swift to task for her “Wildest Dreams” music video (some mature content), lamenting Swift’s “glamorous version of the white colonial fantasy of Africa.” They accuse Swift of perpetuating some of the same negative stereotypes my students identified. The authors also argue that Swift, through the video, seems to express nostalgia for the colonial period by “set[ting] the video in a time when the people depicted by Swift and her co-stars killed, dehumanized and traumatized millions of Africans.” Although the director of the video did reply to the piece, his response did not do much to disarm the criticism.
As we discussed the article, it became clear that, while my students were willing to see how stereotypes might be limiting, they were hesitant to agree with Rutabingwa and Arinaitwe (and not just because many of them are “Swifties”). Many didn’t yet have a sense of the literal danger involved in stereotyping and the potential for real damage to those who are subject to it. Some wanted to argue that Swift didn’t “mean anything” by the imagery in the video or that it was simply a period piece. They wondered if a video that presented a caricature of Americans or overemphasized some aspect of American identity would be similarly critiqued. It dawned on me through these conversations that lessons about stereotyping have to go beyond acknowledgement and must be reflective investigations of power, history and intention. Lessons about stereotypes must:
Explore the histories of stereotypes.
Knowing when and how a stereotype developed can help reveal hidden assumptions. Slurs or derogatory terms often start in one context and become generalized over time. There is similar evidence that stereotypes can grow and evolve, similar to languages. While students may be accustomed to exploring where they encounter stereotypes, encouraging them to think about how they start, grow and evolve can be enlightening. Lessons that promote critical media literacy can be an effective tool for exploring the histories and dissemination of stereotypes.
Identify the role of power dynamics in stereotypes.
One student pushed hard on the idea that a similar music video that presented a limited—or even caricatured—version of white Americans wouldn’t raise parallel concerns. We were then able to pivot to a conversation about the role of power dynamics in stereotypes. Following Adichie, it bears repeating that single stories, or stereotypes, are problematic because they have the potential to become the only story, a danger that is uniquely serious for already marginalized groups. Swift’s video, by perpetuating a limited image of one such group, only reinforces the narrow perception of Africa and its people.
Consider how stereotypes are used.
There are evolutionary and psychological explanations for stereotyping that seem to be common across all human groups: We naturally sort people and experiences into familiar categories that fit past experiences. Acknowledging this human tendency with students can open up a conversation about how stereotypes are used in society. Building on the idea of how power factors into stereotyping, students can see then how certain stereotypes have been used to harm or limit groups while others have had little effect or are even deemed positive. This makes problematic the acceptance and perpetuation of a stereotype, as well as using one for financial gain (as in the case of Swift’s video), rather than just the existence of one.
Acknowledge shared responsibility for identifying and confronting stereotypes.
Thus, we can encourage students to accept their shared responsibility for engaging in a reflective practice that forces them to consider their own implicit biases. Countering stereotypes requires a collective process of reflection, media criticism and social awareness that accounts for both the origins and impacts of stereotypes. Identification, sensitivity and then—I hope—action can spring from lessons that account for the history, power dynamics and uses that perpetuate stereotypes.
Gold is aseventh- and eighth-grade history teacher at Moses Brown School in Providence, Rhode Island. You can reach him on Twitter @jonathansgold.