Narratives for Europe: Voices - Flirting with Stereotypes

Writers Ece Temelkuran, Neel Mukherjee, David van Reybrouck, Rodaan Al Galidi, artists Bogomir Doringer, Ruud Gielens, Laila Soliman, change agent Kirsten van den Hul, journalist/ editor Claude Grunitzky share their visions and thoughts on four timely topics at the heart of European public debate and media.

Our third topic is Flirting with Stereotypes:

History forced ‘tolerance’ upon us. History also gave us a strong sense that human rights and the freedom of expression are good – even essential – for an open society. Same goes for ‘Integration’, ‘diversity’, ‘multiculturalism’, ‘social cohesion’, etc.

Meanwhile stereotypes remain alive, well and interacting in Europe. There’s the charming but corrupt Italian, the snotty French person, the spendthrift Greek, the cold-hearted Swede, the radical Muslim as woman oppressor, etc. These types often seem to lie just under the skin of ‘tolerance’.

But how relevant is any of this when it comes to a person meeting a person? Are we individually responsible for these different ideas or are they imposed by society? And what exactly is the state of stereotyping in Europe today?

Rodaan al Galidi

You are the Minister of Integration. Your first action? 

If I was the Minister of Integration, I would make it clear that stereotyping is normal and it’s nothing to feel guilty or embarrassed about. Stereotyping has protected birds, animals and insects from becoming meals for millions of years. So it shouldn’t be a problem when humans indulge in this habit on occasion. If humans accepted stereotyping as something natural, it will only make them more curious about others as opposed to being afraid of – or afraid for – others.

An example: in the street where I live, lives a sweet old man. During St Martin’s, children come from far away to visit him because he hands out presents. They call him Buurman Bloemetje – ‘Neighbour Flower’ – because the front of his house is covered with flowers. One day he gave a Romanian musician who was playing in the centre of town ten euros instead of ten cents. Now that’s a lot of money, especially in Zwolle where the people are famous for their thriftiness. (Zwolle residents even call themselves ‘Blue Fingers’ because their fingers turn blue from counting their cash.) This Romanian musician, who was freezing from the cold, was certainly happy with his ten euros. But then he wanted to become happier. So he and two of his Romanian musician friends followed Buurman Bloemetje to force him to pin a lot of money. So now I would prefer to be suspicious of a million Romanian musicians, so that not a single Buurman Bloemetje would get robbed by three Romanian musicians. I know that I could have an endless discussion with a high school student about how this is absolutely wrong and uncivilized, but I believe in it. Isn’t this something good to know? That the Russian drinks vodka in the winter and can then sometimes get aggressive? That the Iraqi – myself anyway – can be pathetic because he enjoys playing the victim? That the Dutch can share their personal dramas when they are going through difficult times and thereby you think ‘wow, I was not aware that we were such good friends ’, but then when they enter better times you again become just another acquaintance?

Stereotypes give us titles. For example, black people live in Africa. They talk loud and you may think they are arguing but they are just telling a joke. Blonde people live in Sweden. They speak fine English but are usually too complicated to be happy. In Belgium, they speak with a soft ‘g’, but also live in a soft manner. The Catholics believe in forgiveness, and therefore in Jesus. The Protestants believe in punishment, and therefore in the cross.

I know I am being very black and white. But stereotyping does give you a sort of title to think about and a sense of the direction of where you may be headed. I would very much like to know that canaries can sing beautifully – but there are also canaries that don’t sing at all. I would very much like to know that sparrows don’t sing at all – but there are also sparrows that can make beautiful sounds.

Who is ‘the other’ for you?

The ‘other’, or so I believe, is someone I should be careful with – or even scared of. Or at the very least, I should keep an eye on them. Or I should be someone else around and not myself when I am around them.  If this person was not the ‘other’, then he or she would be me, or someone I would like to be. Or it’s someone that I want to be me. They are my life, my light, my air, my language, my laugh, my tears, my future, my happiness. By travelling I learned that we can become part of another if we leave our places of origin behind and thereby the other becomes a part of me. In Curacao I was an Antillean, because I left Zwolle behind me. In Antwerp, I am Belgian because I left Zwolle behind me. But in Zwolle, I am never a Zwollenaar. Why? Because the other never gave me the room to feel at home.

Can you name a stereotype that has a negative influence on public debate? What are its consequences?

It’s something that happens all the time in the Netherlands: your identity is defined by your accent. The Dutch, and that includes their citizens, immigration police, bureaucrats and tram conductors, are never ones to immediately confront or judge you. First, they have to listen to your language. I had been in the Netherlands for 2.5 years when my first book, Voor de nachtegaal in het ei, was published in 2000. I had a performance, and went there with a couple of other asylum seekers. It was obvious from our second-hand clothes that we were asylum seekers. Very obvious. But I was still feeling very proud that I could take some friends to see me read some of my poetry. It was at a festival that combined music, poetry and storytelling. People were lining up for a ticket. As one of the artists, I assumed that I did not have to line up, so I went directly to the girl behind the counter. But she said: ‘No sir, you must first go stand in line and buy a ticket before you can go inside.’ The people in the line looked at me in a cranky and irritated way. It was obvious I was an imbecile. I wanted to explain that I did not come here to listen but to perform. But from my accent it was obvious that I had only been a short time in the Netherlands and so she thought that I simply didn’t know how things worked. She gave me absolutely no chance to explain myself and I did not feel like waiting in the line just to tell her the same thing again. I left and told my friends: ‘Instead of poetry, I will treat you to delicious shoarma sandwiches before we return to the asylum centre.’ A half hour later when we were enjoying our sandwiches and colas, the woman from the festival organisation called. Coincidentally – or not, I can’t be sure – this woman was also irritated that I was not there. ‘Yes Madame, I was at the door but I was not allowed in and I wasn’t allowed to explain myself,’ I said. When the woman realised it was not my fault but her colleague’s, her mood quickly changed from that of a grumpy tiger to one of a delightful guinea pig out to make it all good again. ‘I will come back but only if the expenses not only include the travel costs but also four shoarmas and colas,’ I said. ‘Fine,’ she said. ‘Oh and as long as nothing happens to the girl at the counter. It wasn’t her fault,’ I added.

Take the point of view of a Chinese, Brazilian or Nigerian. Now look at a European. What do you see?

As a Chinese, I see it this way: Wow, look at all of those muscles that need massages. And all of those nerves that need acupuncture. And all those stomachs that need a lot of restaurants. Soon each European will need three Chinese: one to cook, one to offer relaxation and a third to relieve the pain.

As a Brazilian, I see it this way: Why are people walking like soldiers? Why are they so stressed and why don’t they look at their surrounding? I miss Carnival, salsa and parties. Phhh, it’s just dead here.

As a Nigerian, I see it this way: Wow, it’s great here. Everybody is working hard, so there’s a big chance that I won’t have to do any. Europe is great for someone like me.

As an Iraqi (i.e. me), I see it this way: Wow, look at all these sleepwalkers. They don’t know how rich they are in both money and happiness. Phhh, it’s a shame they need a war to realise that. A huge shame.

Kinan Azmeh

When did you last use a stereotype? What was it?

It is important to stress that stereotypes are heavily influenced by mass media and pop-culture. Also, stereotyping is about thoughts, and not only about actions or spoken words. I am sure many of us use stereotypes on daily basis. After all, our society is becoming all about data processing, compartmentalizing and archiving. This is exactly when/where we end-up using stereotypes unconsciously as a mean to save time from active thinking. this by no means justify such use. I, as someone who is stereotyped being an Arab in airports for example, I find it funny that i catch myself sometimes looking suspiciously at a heavily-bearded young man who fits the arab "bad guy" image (that usually appears in many hollywood films) boarding a plane with me. Even-though I just shared the same "extra security lane" with that same guy before boarding just few minutes before that.

Can stereotypes serve a function?

In short, they save time for those who do not want to use their brains.

Bogomir Doringer

To explain different stereotypes of today, I would use a TV program as an example.

To illustrate this even better, I would also like to add a group of people in front of the screen showing that same flashing TV program. So, I am adding a group of people watching something that is programmed, it is cold outside and they are seating in a cosy set up. We could call this set up “a mentality”.  

These people are just people. They have basic needs, just like any other people, such as food, water, air, a new phone, and summer holidays. Some of them are expecting everlasting love, some are hoping to build a family, and some are already belonging to one. They learn by repeating. They have good and bad sides, but they are doing well. At least until now…

Anyhow, what is important here is the TV program. It is consisting of news, films and reality shows (I am writing this in 2012).

This glossy screen is broadcasting different information about those people, and other people, depending on political intentions and agendas.  This TV program is finding references in some other manipulative mediums from the past that used to serve to divide “them and us”. While watching or listening to this program people slowly start accepting what has been told about “them” and “the others”. That way this image or idea of who they are and what they should be is getting embedded in their behaviour. Because they want to be part of the group they identify themselves with in the program and therefore act as such.

For most people it is relieving to know what role you are about to play or are already playing. Defining your position and self is not an easy task, but jumping out of the group is even less easy.

Stereotypes are omnipresent in TV programs. They give easy clues, for those who are repeating or copying them and those who are performing them. Once the program is broadcasted it takes ages to go back. So the problem does not lie within stereotypes but within the different ‘broadcasting companies,’ as well as in our own nature, and need to belong to a group or to explain the other group that is far away.

Just like everybody else, I do recognize those stereotypes, the only way to avoid them is to avoid the TV program, or change channels all the time.

For those who never leave home, because they are ‘addicted’ to television, stereotypes are helpful guidelines to explain the outside World and confirm their belonging to a certain group. 

Chrissie Faniadis

When did you last use a stereotype? What was it?

As an avid student of human behaviour and a keen observer of people, I find that stereotypes are all around me. Everyday I hear or read about all manner of stereotypes. They can be gender-related, like “that’s such a typical guy thing to do!”, or profession-related, such as “spoken like a true lawyer”. But I think the most prevalent stereotypes are the ones related to a certain nationality or culture.

I think the last time I used one was whilst discussing the current situation in Greece with a few friends and family members right after the election on the 6th of May. We were talking about our inability, as Greeks, to unite and work together to help the country out of the crisis. The sheer number of political parties, from the far left to the extreme right, shows that voters are both angry and confused, and politicians are using this to the max. We were discussing where this stems from, and inevitably it became a discussion about the mentality of the nation.

Individualism and thinking only of ones own interest are stereoptypical characteristics of “the Greek”, as are stubbornness and rebellion, particularly towards “foreign” authority. These are aspects of the Greek mentality that can be both problematic and an asset. Of course, these characteristics only represent a fraction of the complexity of the subject, and were mainly highlighted to illustrate a specific aspect of our topic. No-one taking part in the discussion was under the illusion that they form the whole story, as stereotypes also tend to generalise in a simplistic manner. But the interesting thing was that everyone in this discussion recognised these characteristics as typical Greek attributes, albeit non-exhaustive. We all recognised parts of ourselves in them, even though all of us are Swedish citizens, living and working in Sweden under completely different circumstances. But we all felt entitled to express ourselves about “our” people, and the stereotypical attributes created a relation to “the Greek”.

Can stereotypes serve a function?

I think stereotypes emerge and continue to exist for a reason. Human beings always try to find ways of relating to each other, and to ”the other”. Stereotypes emerge when we feel enough people of a certain culture (I use culture in its broadest sense) demonstrate similar traits or behaviours to eventually represent whole groups or nations. Sometimes they can be derogatory and used to illustrate what is ”typical”, in a negative sense. Taken too far stereotypes can lead to catastrophic results, especially when they are thought to be exhaustive, and true beyond any doubt. Stereotypes can lead to the demonisation of whole groups of people, such as the Jews or Roma, or even entire nations.

Stereotypes should, in my opinion, be taken with a pinch of salt and be free from value-added judgement. By this I mean that recognising common characteristics in a people or a group should not lead us to think more or less of them in relation to ourselves. One should remember that stereotypes do not tell the whole story, they are just indications that help us recognise people around us.

In fact, I think the most fun part of stereotypes is when they prove to be wrong! We tend to assume that just because someone is Italian, or French, or a teacher, accountant or doctor, that we know everything about them, how they act, think and behave, what food they like, what clothes they wear, if they are fun or boring, warm or cold etc. And then just when you thought you knew this person you end up talking to them, and they are not what you expected. That’s when stereotypes go back in their box, and you see the person.

The funny thing about stereotypes, however, is that they can also come in handy, if they are positive. Tourism boards all over the world use positive connotations to promote countries and cities. People also like to use stereotypes when they portray them in a good light, like ”is it true that all Scandinavian women are tall, blonde and beautiful?” Yes, of course, would be the answer (not even close to being true!). Or ”Danish people are the happiest in the world” etc. These stereotypes should also come with a heavy pinch of salt!

Ultimately I think we use stereotypes in order to relate to each other, to recognise something in the unknown that helps us navigate the world. Sometimes this can be good, sometimes really bad. The important thing, in my opinion, is to remember, that it is merely a tiny fraction of the story, and what lies beyond is much more complex, and interesting, than stereotypes could ever take credit for.

Can you name a stereotype that has a negative influence on public debate? What are its consequences?

It is difficult to consider this question without looking at what is happening in Greece and how the rest of Europe is responding to it. There are a number of stereotypes that have been fortified over the course of the last few years. I say fortified because they has existed for a long time, but back in the good old days it was more of a smile and a resigned shrug at the hopelessness of Greeks and their inability to get organized. But that was back then.

In today’s Europe the stereotype has become fact, absolute fact for many. We can thank the media for this. We can thank panicky politicians and big business bosses for this. And we can thank ourselves for this too. The “lazy”, “irresponsible”, “frivolous” Greek, who doesn’t pay taxes, who spends all his time trying to find a way to cheat the system, to get as much as possible for as little as possible, that is the image we have today. And many accept it. Are there elements of truth? I’ll be the first to admit it. But is it the whole truth? Can we really sum up the crisis that easily? I don’t think we can.

See, the problem with accepting one-dimensional stereotypes is that once you accept one, you end up accepting more and more of them, and they spread, like a cancer. For instance, the crisis has given rise to serious anti-German sentiments. Germany is once again a symbol of oppression, a threat and a bully. This does not lead the “lazy” Greek to want to pay for a bailout that’s being enforced by the “fascist” German, believe me! Instead, the stereotypes become dividers, a way of separating “us” from “them”, and ultimately it distracts us from the real issues (bankers gone bonkers, to put it simply). The consequences, in my opinion, are dangerous. I have argued before that stereotypes are only acceptable if there is a general awareness of their superficiality, when we know that there is more to the story. But they become dangerous when they replace the complex, multi-layered truth. In this case I would argue that the situation in Greece cannot solely be put to the nature of the Greek, because if it was then how come so many more countries are in trouble? ! Are all these countries just bad? Or could it be that the story is bigger than that, bigger than what Der Spiegel tells us?? And isn’t it far too simplistic to point to Germany and say that all Germans are oppressive fascists who want Greece to go under? What about those arguing for helping Greece out of the crisis? German MEPs have repeatedly raised the warning flag of populism and point to the issues we really should be concerned with.

The more I think about stereotypes the more I start fearing them. I can self-critically say that occasionally, they get to me too. It is easy to be affected, just look at the rise in extreme right-wing populism all over Europe where people just buy the simple stereotype because the truth is too complicated, too hard to handle.

Take the point of view of a Chinese, Brazilian or Nigerian. Now look at a European. What do you see?

I must admit, I don’t like this question. The reason is, I am not very happy about Europeans at the moment. And I find it hard to describe a European without resorting to stereotypes, which, as I reflect more and more on them, I find odious.

I would like to think that looking at a European one would see a cultured, intelligent, open-minded, wise and worldly person, with a natural curiosity and easy friendliness. I am, however, afraid in reality the picture would be less flattering. I think we Europeans think very highly of ourselves, our history, our traditions such as democracy, our humanism and our collective culture. I know I do. However, I also think we have taken that picture a bit for granted. I recently spoke to a friend of mine from Somalia. We talked about her experiences when she first arrived in Europe, and they are pretty shameful. Turns out, we are not necessarily that civilized and open- minded. We can be pretty nasty, to be quite frank. We are not necessarily curious but suspicious, and we are not true humanists because, as she put it, “we value people differently depending on where they are from”. This embarrassed me, because I do suffer from European guilt after centuries of colonialism and expansion of our European, might I add Christian, ways. As for the Brazilian and the Chinese, I believe both would probably see as a has-beens, given their steady rise in the world.

Having said that, I do think that the European would also be seen as wise and cultured, especially in comparison to other countries in the West. I do think we are still the strongest champions of justice, equality and defense of human rights, if we compare to other parts of the world. And I do think many people see Europe as a place of freedom and of peace. I’m just worried that we’re resting on our laurels and take it for granted, not safe-guarding these qualities but using them as we see fit. That’s not the kind of European I would like to be seen as.

Claude Grunitzky

You are the Minister of Integration. Your first action?

If I were the Minister of Integration in, say, France, the first thing I would do is nudge the Minister of Education into expanding the high school curriculum by adding a weekly class on film. It might be called something like “Cinéma Vérité” and the first class of the first term would always have to be a discussion of the 2011 French film “Les Intouchables.” A runaway hit (and the subject of countless dinner table conversations) in France, “Les Intouchables” was directed by Olivier Nakache and Eric Toledano. Loosely based on a true story, the film is about the unlikely friendship and uncommon bond between an upper class white man (François Cluzet) who was paralyzed from the neck down after a hang gliding accident and his newest helper, a working class Senegalese trickster (Omar Sy) who seems to have a natural way with words and gestures.

The French loved this movie, which was voted the cultural event of 2011, because it was genuine and funny, and also because it showed that friendship could and should transcend race and class. The Germans, the Austrians and the Italians loved it too, but for some not so strange reason English-speaking critics hated it. The Independent in London called it a "a third-rate buddy movie that hardly understands its own condescension.... Why has the world flipped for this movie? Maybe it's the fantasy it spins on racial/social/cultural mores, much as Driving Miss Daisy did 20-odd years ago – uptight rich white employer learns to love through black employee's life-force. That was set in the segregationist America of the 1940s. What's this film's excuse?"

A.O. Scott, the famous New York Times reviewer was even more harsh in his judgment, writing that “It is possible to summarize the experience of watching ‘The Intouchables’ in nine words: You will laugh; you will cry; you will cringe. The caricatures are astonishingly brazen, as ancient comic archetypes — a pompous master and a clowning servant right out of Molière — are updated with vague social relevance, an overlay of Hollywood-style sentimentality and a conception of race that might kindly be called cartoonish.” At the end of his review, Scott adds, “this film can only be described, in the context of French cinema and global popular culture, as an embarrassment.”

So why would I lobby the Minister of Education on behalf of this movie? Because it shows that a healthy debate on cultural diversity should be a priority for high school students, their parents and their educators. As they increasingly rely on entertainment (and less on the classics of literature) to shape their sensibilities, European students should be encouraged to openly discuss stereotypes and to express their opinions on them. When I was a high school student in a Catholic boarding school outside Paris in the 1980s, many of my fellow students would make racist jokes at my expense, but I was afraid to verbalize my anger, because I was told by my parents that as Africans we should rise above and not be vocal about issues like racism and discrimination. Times have changed. Now, immigration and diversity have become hot button issues in France and elsewhere in Europe. And even though “Les Intouchables” was just a tad too stereotypical for the world citizen in me, I welcome any debate around race, class and identity.

Who is ‘the other’ for you?

“The other” is me. Growing up in France in the 1980s and 1990s, I always felt like “the other.” When I was 14, in 1985, I read Albert Camus’s classic novel “L’Étranger” and I remember feeling like that 1942 book was written for me. In that book, Meursault, the narrator and main character, a Frenchman living in Algeria, kills an Arab after an altercation. What struck me when I read the book was that Meursault felt no remorse whatsoever after killing the Arab. And during the trial that followed his arrest, his lawyer was ill at ease because Meursault expressed no regret as he recounted the tragic chain of events that preceded the shooting. So with the upmost sincerity, Meursault revealed the nihilistic yet naïve aspects of his character.

Those very traits are the reason he is sentenced to death by guillotine, and as a teenager I wrested with the duality in his personality. How, I wondered, could a person be so sympathetic and cruel at the same time? I remember quizzing my French language teacher in school, and being provided with some interesting cues. The teacher, an erudite, affable man named Jean Ferret, told me that there had once been an Asian religion called Manichaeism, and that it had to do with the struggle between good and evil. He explained that that specific religion forced you to choose between good and evil, but that in reality life was more complicated and nuanced than that religion had once advocated.

Having grown up a strict Christian, in a very religious African family, I thought about that concept for a while as I was imagining and deciding which kind of person I would become. Having grown up on three continents, I started crafting a persona for myself around my hybrid identities and increasingly complex personality. In my later teenage years, I went through a bit of an identity crisis, because I was a black African kid coming of age in the secluded world of France’s white bourgeoisie, and also because I was a budding intellectual who found refuge in hardcore American hip hop slang. In short, I saw and expressed myself as “the other,” because I didn’t want anyone to figure me out and label me according to some pre-defined notion of identity. In retrospect, I feel like I myself was trying to figure out who I really was, and “otherness” was a comfortable denominator that allowed me to avoid simplistic classification.

Kirsten van den Hul

You are the Minister of Integration. Your first action? 

My first action as Minister of Integration? Change my job title. The Ministry of Integration would be called the Ministry of Diversity. Why? I believe there is something intrinsically wrong with the word integration. Integration means amalgamating newcomers into an existing group, the famous “melting pot” principle. Just throw the new ingredients (Muslims, Maghrebians, refugees or other migrants) into the national soup, let them cook for a while, stir in some tolerance, language and education et voilá: the integrated social soup is ready to be served. Bon appétit!

But what does that really leave us with? A rather bland concoction, which does not do justice to any of the seperate ingredients. The different tastes have been neutralised, the colors have faded: the soup has become boring, if you ask me.

Quite a shame, really. Isn't our ability to deal with “difference” what will help us survive in an increasingly complex, globalising world? Shouldn't we teach our children diversity skills rather than drilling them in national identity?

I'd rather see society as a multi-dimensional mosaic rather than a one-size-fits-all melting pot. A society that values diversity and difference as unique components of its social and cultural DNA.  After all, the whole is greater than the sum of its parts.

Who is ‘the other’ for you?

“Good evening madam. Is Mister Van den Hul available?” a young man's voice asks me from his call center. “No, he isn't”, I answer. “Would you happen to know when would be a good time for us to call him?” the young man persists. I sigh. “There is no Mister Van den Hul at this address. There is a Ms Van den Hul, and you are speaking to her now.” Silence on the other side. I picture the young man, frantically searching his script. But apparently there were no clues in his manual about what to do in case of Ms. It takes a while before he finally gets it. “Oh.. Oh I see. So you are the main resident and breadwinner at this address?” he stutters. Yes ladies and gentlemen. It's 2012 and not only a Mr but also a Ms can be a main resident and breadwinner. But apparently that revolution skipped this particular call center.

As a (blonde, white-skinned, short-haired) woman of the world, I have often been “the other”. When I was in Cuba for example and was refused a ride on the back of a truck,  since the driver felt it would not be a suitable means of transportation for a lady (meaning I could afford a taxi). Or when I was living in Tunisia and was told the café I wanted to smoke a waterpipe was not “mixed” (meaning not serving women). Or when kids in my home town in the east of Holland told me I was “import” (meaning my parents weren't locals). Nothing major, of course. I survived. But still, those situations of unexpected exclusion have been very insightful.

I wish everybody could experience some form of exclusion or other “otherness” at some point in their life. It helps to train your empathy towards other “others” and build awareness for the ever-present threat of being blind-sided by your cultural, social, economical or biological bias.

Let's face it: we are all “the other”, at some point or another. 

 Can you name a stereotype that has a negative influence on public debate? What are its consequences?

“You're a feminist?” I was waiting for an elevator at the United Nations General Assembly building in New York, about to witness the official launch of UN Women, the new entity for gender equality and the empowerment of women. “Excuse me?” The lady who spoke to me was looking at me over her reading glasses. She looked at my hands, my dress, my high heels, and then rested her gaze on my face. “Would you consider yourself a feminist?” she repeated. “Yes, I would actually.” I did not quite understand where she was going. “Hmmm. Interesting. Quite interesting indeed.”

“I'm not sure I understand...” I replied. She looked at my hands again. “Nailpolish” she answered. “You are wearing NAILPOLISH. And high heels. And red lipstick.” I looked at my hands. Yes, I wore nailpolish. Ruby red, to be precise. And yes, I was wearing a dress and high heels. I was going to an official launch, right? Wrong. Very wrong, according to the lady. “I've been around for a while now. And I've found feminism and nailpolish to be mutually exclusive. One can not be a feminist and wear nailpolish. Nor high heels or short dresses for that matter.”

Apparently, that lady wasn't the only one who believed feminism and nailpolish to be mutually exclusive. I keep running into people who are telling me with a mix of surprise and shock that they never thought I'd be a feminist. “But you're not lesbian!” I've been told. “And you're wearing a bra!” Yes ladies and gentlemen, this may come as quite a shock, but we come in all shapes and forms these days. Unfortunately, the stereotype of the angry ugly man-hating feminist is still very much alive. And somehow, as soon as stereotypes take over, anything you say can and will be used against you. Even if you don't say a word.

“But why bother?” some people tell me. “Never mind what people say!” Well, I do mind. Not necessarily because I take offense (frankly, stereotypical thinking can be quite amusing at times), but because stereotypes tend to lead to tunnel vision, poor judgment.. or worse.

Speaking about stereotypes, a Senior Vice President of a multinational company based in the US once told me about the first time she was using the corporate jet. Upon arrival at the airport, she was welcomed by the pilot and cabin staff. “You can change into your uniform back there”, they said. They thought the attractive African-American woman who arrived at the gate was their new flight attendant. I asked her how that made her feel. “Sad”, she replied. “But it was also quite insightful. I've started using this example in board meetings whenever we discuss diversity and inclusion. I was taken for granted and put in a box. Let's make sure our employees don't have to go through the same experience.”

Take the point of view of a Chinese, Brazilian or Nigerian. Now look at a European. What do you see?

"Europe? Paradise! But the funny thing is: Europeans don't seem to realise they're in paradise. They seem to think they are in some sort of crisis, economically, culturally, politically. So they build all these high walls around their continent and think that will keep them safe. Laws, rules and regulations, that's how they solve things. They think they can control it all. That they are still the centre of the universe, like they used to be. But look at my country, Brasil. Or India, or China, or Angola. Look at the development these new countries are going through. Do you see them building high walls around their countries?

Really, Europeans should open their eyes to the talent they are wasting. Lots of my friends left Brasil to find a job in Europe. Saved money for years, to buy their ticket. Good people, decent motivated hard-working young people, who went to school and could achieve a lot, if you would give them a chance. But what do they end up doing in Europe? Cleaning, contruction, lousy jobs that Europeans don't want.

Funny people, those Europeans. I sometimes feel sorry for them. They have it all: education, equality, democracy, access to information, opportunities to travel without visa, trains that run according to schedule. But do they appreciate what they have? Do they really enjoy their lives? No they don't! They complain about everything. About the Euro, about Greece, about the latest tax raise, about the weather, about the line in front of the Apple store. Who would want to wait in line for hours just to buy a new phone anyway? You Europeans are so rich, but don't seem to notice it. You take everything for granted: electricity, running water, even unemployment benefits. And at the same time, I find Europe very poor. All people listen to is American music, all people eat is McDonald's. Do you call that food? And there seems to be no real sense of community in Europe. People don't even know their neighbours. Families only meet for Christmas. Do you think we would put our parents in a facility once they get too old to look after themselves? We'd be the talk of the town!”

David Van Reybrouck

Can you name a stereotype that has a negative influence on public debate? What are its consequences?

Sicilians are lazy. Walloons are lazy, too. The Greeks are even lazier, not to mention the Moroccans! Not very helpful, this populist rhetoric.

But hey, there is also an elitist rhetoric that is equally problematic! "Europe is such a great and diverse continent!" "We have such amazing literature!" "Read Elias Canetti and you become a European advocate straight away! (or Kafka, or Kundera, or Celan: any Great Male, preferably Central-European Author from Mid till Turn of the Century will do)" "People who do not like the EU are so narrow-minded, nationalistic, fearsome, etc."

If cosmopolitism is the best argument we can invent for Europe, I fear for the future of Europe. If cosmopolitism is all we can come up with, I start losing my faith in Europe. Europe is more than academics sipping Chardonnay from Burgundy to Varna.

Take the point of view of a Chinese, Brazilian or Nigerian. Now look at a European. What do you see?

An incredible political project that has brought peace and well-being to an entire continent for over half a century. A political project that has, rather incredibly too, embraced hyperneoliberalism as its only valid models in the last twenty years. My Chinese alter ego would admire European accomplishments, for sure, yet he would also see the ends of a very reductive state. He would see certain benefits of the state- controlled Chinese model, too. He would start thinking about a mixture of big state and small state, about market economy and public control, about creating welfare and making sure it sustainable. Then, he would go and try to convince my Brazilian and Nigerian alter ego. The Brazilian would be readily convinced, for he sees the same battle in his country, too. And the Nigerian would dream of a country that is less dictated by the oil-extracting companies. But all three of them would certainly like to visit and perhaps even settle in Europe.

Laila Soliman

You are the Minister of Integration. Your first action? 

My first action would be to review school curriculae and museums such as the "Tropenmuseum". I would review how other parts of the world and other cultures are presented. From that perspective I would also consider more historical framing or changing names of institutions such as the “Tropenmuseum". I would also introduce a more open form of post colonial self criticism in how the collection is presented and labeled, especially that it functions as a an educational sight for many Dutch children, including children that have origins from those places. 

Who is ‘the other’ for you?

On a very personal note I ask myself "who is not an other?"  I cannot denounce the concept of the "other" but I do reflect upon it and maybe even invite "others" to embrace it.

Can you name a stereotype that has a negative influence on public debate? What are its consequences?

A lot of examples about Muslims come to my mind of course. After September 11 and all the questions of legislation that arose concerning the minarets, the veil, the building of mosques... However, nothing in particular that I experienced first hand. I heard about it all through the press.

Take the point of view of a Chinese, Brazilian or Nigerian. Now look at a European. What do you see?

I will take the point of view of an Egyptian, an Arab that I am.

I do not see one European, I see a multiplicity that is dominantly white.

I see human beings like me, who have prejudices like me. And I will continue the wonder in how far the prejudice I see is not my own.

Ece Temelkuran

Can you name a stereotype that has a negative influence on public debate? What are its consequences?

The Kurdish stereotype in the minds of Turkish people would be a perfect example of how stereotyping might affect the public debate. "The brutal, backward, primitive, hostile Kurdish" in the minds of ordinary Turkish has been the strongest card in the hands of Turkish political authority in the game of building a nationalist Turkish state. It has been so since the establishment of the republic. The cliché has been repeatedly imposed on Turkish collective mind not only through nation building discourses but also through nationalist mainstream media. Especially after the Kurdish armed movement PKK came to the scene in 1980's, dehumanization of the Kurdish has been used to oppress the demands of equality and political representation of the Kurdish people. As an individual I remember very well that through my childhood during the news hours every night we were watching "the hunted" bodies of the "jackals" lying dead on the ground. They were "hunted" in their "holes". My generation who grew up in the dark days of the military coup happened in 1980, were forced to see the Kurdish as not only the enemy of the state but also sneaky animals. Well at least, we were better than the previous generation who genuinely believed that the Kurdish people had tails. My mother once told me that they were made to believe this outrageous lie so much so that when she saw a Kurdish woman for the first time she was checking her back to find out how she manages to hide her tail. Disgusting as it is.

How this stereotyping affected the public debate is another question. Two years ago, the Turkish government, almost all of a sudden and completely in an unprecedented way, declared a new policy towards Kurdish community. "The Kurdish opening" as it was called, meant to give the rights of political representation of the Kurdish people and bring along some fresh air of freedom. As I wrote those days in my column, it was very dangerous to do it without getting the Turkish psyche first. It was not hard at all to foresee what was to come: The riot of the stereotype! The Turkish public reacted to the "Kurdish opening" by saying that that would "spoil the jackals". After thirty years of depicting the Kurdish as the "traitors, jackals, animals, terrorists" all of a sudden the political authority asked them to see them not only as human beings but as their equals as well. That was too much to take all at once and the Turkish public regressed to their very fundamental self-protective instincts. So the long waited political project of freedom and equality for Kurds was let down by the government who would not dare to lose votes. After the fail of the project the rhetoric that reigns the public debate on the Kurdish issue at the moment is much more primitive than it was before the "Kurdish opening". This, I think, was the perfect example showing the strength of stereotype.

Take the point of view of a Chinese, Brazilian or Nigerian. Now look at a European. What do you see?

I can not tell much about the Chinese but for a Brazilian, as I know it from my personal experience in Brazil, the European is not really relevant to their daily life. They are living in another planet where the main attraction point is the US. To explain the constant political turmoil in Latin American countries they say "We are too close to the USA and too distant from god". As for the Nigerian I have a story to tell. Last August, I was following the Arab Spring in Tunisia. Meanwhile Libya was happening. So I took a trip to the Tunisia-Libya border where there were many refugee camps. Most of the camps were inhabited by the Libyans who ran away from the war. But there was one particular camp where there were no Libyans but only the Black Africans from many countries in Africa. Meanwhile Somalia was going through a crisis and the international media was busy with Somalis more than any other African countries, which actually were having their own crisis that were not less than Somalia's. Well, one should now that there is always a market for human crisis in the planet and one is always more "cool" than the others to be followed by international media. It was Somalia then. And even without Angelina Jolie or George Clooney supporting the cause. So in this camp known as the Shusha Camp, in South Tunisia 2 miles away from the Libya border, I met Nigerian refugees who happened to be there, in the middle of the desert for six months. They were extremely pissed off because the Somalis were the "trendy refugees" and that nobody was giving a damn about the Nigerians. So in their eyes Europeans were the "guys who determines the ratings the human crisis" and therefore deciding who is going to live and who won't. Just like in the film "Hotel Rwanda". Not a pretty mirror image for the Europeans, ah? 

Iryna Videnava

When did you last use a stereotype? What was it?

I was asked to consider these questions while I was visiting western Turkey, from ancient Ephesus to mysterious Cappadocia. In such a diverse country, “multiculturalism” ceases to be just a buzz word. Different cultures – Greek, Roman, Byzantine, Ottoman, Armenian and Kurd – coexist in a colorful mix of past and present. Mosques, churches and pagan temples sit side by side. Yet, despite the vibrant landscape and melting pot that was Constantinople and is Istanbul, it is difficult to get past some of the strong stereotypes I have about Turkey being a third world country where religion and men still dominate, even a half century after Atatürk’s European reforms. Part of the problem is Belarus’ own homogeneous population and isolation. We tend to know Turks only because Belarus has become a popular destination for male Turkish tourists looking for a good time with pretty and willing Slavic women. There are many tales of Belarusian girls marrying “hotel owners” shortly after a package tour to Turkey – one of the most popular destinations for Belarusians due to easy visa procedures and affordable costs.

Outside of the capital, things seem more the same. Men gathered in street cafes, talking, drinking tea, smoking and playing dominos or backgammon – not a single woman among them. Calls to prayer from minarets piercing the blue sky. Women in hijab headscarves and jilbab robes praying separately and hurrying from markets to kitchens to cook for their large families. These are the typical, very non-EU sights in small towns like Selcuk or Goreme. They charm and calm those of us from big European cities, but reinforce the feeling that time and geography have stopped here. But these stereotypes last only until you start talking to people and learn about their life stories.

In Selcuk, on the western coast, I ran into a shop owner named Hülya (she prefers to go by Julia), who started her own business twenty years ago, on the day after her marriage. Inspired by a traditional wedding gift (a filigree silver belt, bracelets and earrings), she decided to start making her own jewelry. Her two stores (one in Selcuk and one in Istanbul’s Grand Bazaar) are on the Lonely Planet recommended list. Her jewelry is sold in Europe and New York. She can talk about gemstones for hours. Her husband travels the world in search of the best materials so his wife can make precious stones into pieces of art. Because of her passion for gems, Hülya knows a great deal about the world. She buys the stones from India, Asia, Afghanistan and Latin America, amber from Lithuania and Poland, and wrapping paper and gift boxes from Chinese merchants. Globalization is not an empty word for her. She gave me a lecture on how to distinguish which of the “traditional” Turkish pashminas, silk, carpets and cloth are locally produced and which are really made in China or Uzbekistan. Dressed in jeans and speaking in English, Hülya is passionate about what she does, confident, successful and independent. Yet, at the end of our conversation, she remarked that “that no matter how much you have achieved, in Turkey it is still easier to pretend to be ‘a stupid woman’ in order to better fit into society.”

In the ancient Cappadocian town of Goreme (Central Turkey, population 8,000), I found Leonie, a young artist and jewelry designer, who had escaped from Paris to this small Turkish town to make her dreams come true. After eight years of university and degrees in design and art therapy, Leonie couldn’t find an appealing job. Inspired by her favourite artist Dali and the surrealistic landscapes of Cappadocia, she moved to Goreme and opened her own jewelry store – “Shooting Star” – a month ago in a cave, where she also lives. Besides selling her own designs of semiprecious, leather and feather jewelry, Leonie offers something quite unique – pendants made from pieces of real meteorites that she purchases from “star hunters” who travel the world searching for things that fall from the sky. Leonie is passionate about these unique space stones and knows everything about them. Her store is already popular and attracts international customers. While Turkish women are mostly interested in gems, Europeans love the craft jewelry and romantic meteorites. Leonie admits that she didn’t expect that her business would have such a successful start. She is planning to stay in Goreme at least for one year, although she might need to find another apartment, as a cave can be too cold and humid during the wintertime. She’s getting ready to launch her business online. While many Turks dream of France and European capitals, this young Parisian found her happiness and her calling in this small Turkish town.

To me, these kind of face-to-face experiences in remote places do more for a better understanding of diversity, multiculturalism and integration than attending research conferences in cosmopolitan capitals. As a citizen from a country that borders on and aspires to Europe, I was lucky to find myself in another place that is both like and unlike my own. If more Belarusians could travel abroad to see and experience other cultures than their own, it would also help us to see ourselves better and to rid ourselves of the stereotypes imposed by a long history of misunderstanding and isolation.

Can stereotypes serve a function?

It’s hard for me to come up with any positive functions for stereotypes to serve. They generalize and simplify – two things I don’t like and try to avoid. They make a complicated and diverse world easier to understand by defining it through contrasts – black and white, good and bad, west and east, rich and poor. Stereotypes make the world more manageable and life easier for the close-minded, lazy, uneducated, xenophobic and intolerant in our societies. But we all have them; they help those of us lost on a planet of billions to feel unique, personal and special. It is naïve to think that stereotypes will disappear. Sometimes it seems that, despite an ever more open and interconnected world, stereotypes are actually on the rise.

This is especially true in closed, undemocratic countries like Belarus. Here stereotypes are used by the state to distinguish “us” from “them”, to drum up support for the regime by creating internal and external enemies. Democrats and human rights activists are labeled as corrupt, unemployed, amoral parasites, while the KGB is lauded as loyal, patriotic, honest and hard working. Brainwashed by state propaganda, influenced by the mouthpieces of state media, and blocked by a “Schengen Curtain”, Belarusians can be very friendly and hospitable to individual Americans or Europeans who are visiting, but still believe the party line that the US, EU and NATO want to take over our country. We are told that we must defend our independence from the “evil West” but that the “big brother” to our east, Russia, is a friendly Slavic neighbor only interested in helping us. We laugh at foreigners who think that one can meet a bear on Moscow’s streets or that Polish plumbers are a threat, but are too quick to agree when Belarusians are called “Russians” with no history, language or culture of their own, instead of trying to explain the complexity and diversity of our past and present. Stereotypes make us ignorant, dull and weak.

Questioning and overcoming clichés is a lot of fun for any curious mind. Perhaps, this is the main function of stereotypes – they prompt us to examine and, eventually, push for a better understanding of how things really are. This act of questioning is helping to spur the democratic struggle in Belarus, which is for a more pluralistic political system, diverse media spectrum, tolerant society and western values. These changes will reduce stereotypes by opening up the country and reuniting it with Europe.

Can you name a stereotype that has a negative influence on public debate? What are its consequences?

Belarus is a very polarized country, with a substantial segment of the society supporting an authoritarian ruler, while another large part wants democratic changes. The former are convinced that the state should rule, control the economy and provide social benefits. The later believe in free market, capitalism and the primacy of the individual over the collective. One reason for this polarization is that Belarus is a post-Soviet state. Since 1918, the country’s rulers have condemned democracy and capitalism and promoted dictatorship, whether of the proletariat or of one man, as the correct form of government and the economy. Since the country gained independence in 1991, its experience with democracy and a market economy has been messy. When Belarusians think of the collapse of the Soviet Union and the first years of an independent Belarus, many remember the political chaos, economic crises and social unrest. They recall the empty shelves in the stores, the strikes, the currency devaluations, and the uncertainty of everyday live. Democracy and capitalism became dirty words, rather than promises for a better life. Today, the regime in Belarus continues to play upon these stereotypes of democracy and a market economy. It preaches stability and prosperity through the rule of one man, while promising that there won’t be a return to the dark days of the beginning of the 1990s. Of course, society in today’s Belarus is very different than it was 20 years ago. Many have no memory of Soviet times or of a democratic Belarus before Lukashenka. After last year’s political and economic crisis, many understand that there is no other alternative for Belarus than democratic and market reforms. Public opinion polls indicate that Belarusians overwhelmingly support political and economic changes. But society continues to be influenced by the stereotypes of democracy and capitalism promoted by the regime through its propaganda. The global financial crisis and the EU’s current troubles only bolster its message. It is these stereotypes, above all, that keep Belarusians silent and inactive, and allow the regime to remain in power.

Take the point of view of a Chinese, Brazilian or Nigerian. Now look at a European. What do you see?

For most people from outside of Europe and the former Soviet Union, Belarus doesn’t exist. My country is small, isolated and doesn’t play much of a role in world’s affairs, other than Lukashenka’s occasional visits to his dictator friends in places like Iran, China, Cuba, and Venezuela. In terms of international affairs, Belarus is best known for being part of the “authoritarian international” that seeks to block the advance of democratic change around the globe. It is hard to expect that foreigners would have a strong image of Belarus when Belarusians themselves are very much confused about their own identity and where they belong, in the West or the East, to a Soviet past or European future. Those from the outside who visit usually only speak of surface impressions of a well-ordered Belarus and its Lenin statutes, socialist realism architecture, clean streets and pretty girls.

Foreigners who end up spending some time in Belarus, however, see beyond these stereotypes and begin to feel the more ominous impact of our authoritarianism. Earlier this year, the magazine, which I founded and worked for, interviewed a number of foreigners who have spent significant time in my country. A young Mexican, who came to study Russian and stayed for more than a year, pointed out: “Here you have a certain order and cleanliness. Sometimes it seems that all this beauty isn’t for living but just for show.” Sometimes foreigners, especially those who have integrated into Belarusian society and speak the language, seem to understand us better than we do ourselves. A 24-years-old Belgian musician, who has lived here for the last six and a half years, said: “I fell in love with Belarus. But often I think that I like something that doesn’t really exist. I’m really impressed by Belarusian villages, their traditional textiles and pagan traditions, and the quiet streets of Minsk. You can burst into tears over them. I like my Belarusian friends. But everything I like seems to be slowly disappearing and the majority of my friends would like to escape from here.” A young Peruvian chef, working in Belarus for seven years, was surprised that nobody was protesting when the cost for public transport had been increased several times: “In Peru, crowds of people would take to the streets and in two days everything would be resolved. Our government is afraid of the people. And this is how it should be. In Belarus, everything is the other way around. And this is wrong.” A German educational worker said that what surprised her most about Belarusians was that nothing seemed to surprise them. “Stuff happens, life goes on,” – is our reaction to the new and the answer to most of our problems.

When the article with their interviews was published in my magazine, it resonated with Belarusian readers so much that many asked that it be translated into English, so that they could share it with their foreign friends. It seemed like it was easier for them to explain who they were through the eyes of these outsiders, who managed to see and express the Belarusian soul. These young foreigners, who for different reasons found themselves living in Belarus for some time, also talked about the many positive features of Belarusian national character and optimistic aspects of life in Belarus. If you come to Belarus, please, follow the advice of my German colleague: “You need to be ready to improvise, try to go as far as possible outside of Minsk and talk to people a lot. Belarusians are very friendly and open if you approach them the right way.”