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Stereotypes and Shortcuts

By Victoria J. Mora | Published: September 24, 2019

Recently I had a number of second-year students (designated “seniors” at most high schools) in my home to sign the code of conduct that commits them to uphold our school values and rules. Many of them stayed for conversation in my living room afterward, including students from Spain, the UK, Nepal, Hong Kong, and Palestine.

An aerial shot of an international boarding high school in the mountains
UWC-USA is one of 18 international boarding
schools, where students from 90 countries
learn to become global leaders. 

Our business concluded, the conversation turned to life in a boarding school with students from 96 countries and even more cultural traditions. One student noted the wide range of comfort levels with hugging as an expression of friendship. He observed how comfortable Latinx are with hugging—maybe a little too comfortable for his tastes. Others chimed in with other broad observations about Latinx people on campus and in the local community. Musical tastes, and more importantly music volume, became a topic of conversation.

And then there was a moment of realization. United World College-USA is located in New Mexico, which has a large Hispanic population. Mine is a Latinx name and face; I’m small of stature and notably brown and have deep roots in New Mexico. The student who made the initial observation abruptly ended the conversation, mumbling sheepishly about not meaning to perpetuate stereotypes.

Apparently, stereotypes become uncomfortable when you are sharing them with the president of your school. In this instance I chose to laugh and commend him for recognizing that it was worth pausing whenever we find ourselves edging toward “the stereotype conversation.”

A Black teenage girl in a classroom
Students at UWC-USA bridge cultural divides
as they tackle rigorous academics and
challenging activites, all in a community 
speaking more than 125 languages.  

Stereotypes are a way that our brains—inclined to recognize patterns—make sense of a new culture or people. From patterns of letters and numbers to patterns of behavior in others, the search for patterns creates order out of the chaos of the stimuli our brains process. When we are being stereotyped it feels limiting and unfair. But when we engage in stereotyping, we are trying to make sense of what we are experiencing.

The student who caught (and checked) himself was acknowledging me. He realized I was both a member of the group being discussed as well as a person involved in the conversation. The dual role I played in that moment startled him and created a sense of awkwardness. 

So, what’s the big deal? Why are we nervous about stereotyping if it is a function of our natural inclination to find patterns in the world? 

Those of us who live and work in highly international, cross-cultural environments are wary of stereotypes because a true cultural encounter, where deep learning happens, is fueled by curiosity and a desire to understand. But it isn’t just about the importance of curiosity and the desire to understand others in a diverse community. It’s about something so fundamental that there is no hope for global citizenship without it: we have to curb our natural inclination to stereotype if we are to have any hope of truly recognizing the other. Stereotypes can help us get to some of the pattern recognition that provides access to those who are different, but we can't start there if we want to move from observing differences to understanding and embracing them. 

Stereotypes are shortcuts, but ones that can distract and detract from the journey into discovering the beauty and power of the very differences they claim to name. If culture matters, we have to be willing to follow our curiosity one individual at a time. 

About the Author

Victoria J. Mora is the president of UWC-USA, one of 18 international boarding high schools around the world enrolling students dedicated to becoming the next generation of leaders and changemakers. Victoria is the first in her family from Albuquerque, New Mexico, to attend college and ultimately earned a Ph.D. in Philosophy from Yale University. She is dedicated to the UWC mission of “making education a force to unite, people, nations and cultures for peace and a sustainable future.”

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