Stereotypical reflections oftentimes result in the categorization of individuals. Societal groups tend to utilize presumed characteristics to better understand the social worlds we live in. Though there might be different interpretations across cultures, one thing is mutual: stereotypes are ubiquitous. I am convinced that labeling a group is not necessarily negative and rather important to make sense of an increasingly complex world, because none of us will ever be able to fully comprehend its complexity. Differentiating oneself from others may help to overcome an inherent angst of the unknown. However, I would like to claim that stereotypes need to be understood both in terms of their perception among various social groups and regarding likely pitfalls they may carry.
We all have encountered circumstances where we felt lost and/or misunderstood. Frankly, while knowing better, I also tend to find a solution by putting the blame on someone or something else; sometimes even successfully. Most of us, however, have probably failed and were caught in a web of anxieties and rebelliousness; afraid to discover that only we are responsible yet disobedient towards good reason and support that we might were offered. We may have ended up in putting ourselves in an artificial cocoon, being untouchable to others, being emotional distant, blaming others for being responsible and believing that our situation cannot be changed. Most likely such tactics create a rather hostile environment than opening opportunities to escape the situation or even allow to move on, while discovering something new about us and the world we live in.
It can be a very cleansing experience to discover personal weaknesses and faults, because they are inherently human and none of us were born perfect (or will ever be). We learn and prosper through successes but more so through failures! However, to accept that one derivates from that social and cultural assumption of flawlessness, one need to apply a positive attitude towards life to overcome hardship and to get up, over, and over again, which is much harder than one might think. Setbacks are common and getting up does not become much easier over time or by experiencing it more often, particularly as social pressure and negativity towards failure appears to be a stubborn attitude of most societies (speaking as a true Germen).
Many might use strong language, become emotional, or just burst out in anger to find a solution and to free themselves from the groups that are holding them back. Perhaps we remember the positive emotions we felt when our rebellion against the odds of life have been successful. Nonetheless, we may as well end up in resignation, if we lose the fight, despite those efforts. If this happens our self-esteem might diminish even further, to an extent that others don’t see us anymore as the person we are; or in other words society assumes that our bitterness, fear, or rebelliousness are inherent and better to be ignored – we become invisible.
Some of us might remember a situation as narrated above; others might not understand why I integrated the discussion at all. However, while talking about marginalized groups, we could argue, that the struggle of overcoming societal and cultural expectations is a constant one. It is not, but also, about assumed perfection as certain flaws are understood of being inherent characteristics of specific groups (e.g., ethnicity, religion, disability, etc.). It becomes a battle against the ones in power. Fighting such, makes it even more likely to be perceived as an angry and unreasonable child that is rebellious against odds that cannot be beaten (e.g., you are black, which is why ….).
Language is powerful tool to convey emotions, rationale, wants, and needs; though the tone makes the music, as does appearance, social status, sex, race, functional abilities etc. Those elements, however, are also connected to our socio-cultural background and so biased in perception. People with disabilities, for example, may not have the ability to use ‘perfect’ language within societal norms, i.e. what is perceived as the normal (e.g., legal lingo) way to communicate. Perhaps one might be perceived as rebellious, while trying to overcome language barriers with excessive body language. Most likely ending up being turned down, which, in turn could lead to inner resignation.
Even though those people may still put up a smile, because they have learned that a smile is rather sanctioned than punished, its meaning might be different. It could be the hope that people stop feeling bad about you as an individual and trying to ‘cure’ what is not to be cured. It could also be resignation to be understood and to give up discussing causes or reasons of their pain, so acting out to be happy in order to be accepted as part of society might be the easier solution. To not become invisible, i.e. to smile despite of hardship, while already having resigned internally, requires expression on various levels: words, actions, looks and moves must be in sync to convey what we are fighting for. We need to frame ourselves in a way that we want to be seen and perceived by others. While doing so, however, we need to understand our inner self, in order to not get lost in the cause. We may create a false image to get our point across, relentlessly trying to draw a picture about something and someone else but us. Nevertheless, it becomes imperative that we always look back and ask ourselves if the cause we are fighting for is still worth the risk to give up who we are.
Fighting for the rights of oppressed groups can be tiring and many of us will fail to change society’s assumptions and beliefs. In particular in the beginning, advocacy is a rather self-less act with little hope that the immediate and personal situation may change. Rebellions based on selfishness, on the belief that success is determined by easing one’s own life, will most likely fail as well. If we, however, act regardless of who benefits from our actions and irrespective if it is now or in a distant future, we may recruit others who think alike and we might even establish an identity on which a social movement can be built upon.
For the disability rights movement one cause generally has been society’s belief that disabled people must be ‘cured’. Advocates have tried to establish an understanding that ‘they’ are not any less human and that pity is not helping anyone. If pity becomes an even chronic attitude it is even perceived as humiliating. As it means one is taking away one’s voice and choice about which ‘treatment’ is right for that person. We are living in the here and now and must cope with the moment. Reducing the barriers which are hindering us today, are the things we need to discuss, not to debate about the terrifying things which might have happened in the past.