How To Stereotypically Carry Stuff On Your Head

In the beginning were the stereotypes of Africa that innocently influenced us in our childhoods, as we had no way of knowing better. As children, therefore, we honestly thought that Africans had bones through their noses, that they cooked missionaries in big casseroles and that the women carried all their loads on their heads. After this came enlightenment, wherein we learned that these images were “stereotypes” and so by definition false and evil. We may even have learned that it was in the Pacific that man practised systematic cannibalism, not in Africa. Wicked, wicked us.

In my old age, however, I found myself living near the Equator; and what did I find in this third stage of the stereotype’s progress? Why, I saw nobody with bones through their noses, and I saw nobody eating missionaries (we should be so lucky), but I did see people carrying their loads on their heads. They carried loads that were either very heavy, or improbably large, like in some circus act. I myself used to carry a ten-litre water bottle on my head from the store to see what it felt like; but I could not begin to do it no-hands like the folks here. Learning in childhood to walk down the (unsurfaced) street with about twenty kilos of stuff on your head, without touching it, might have something to do with the wonderful carriage of the women, though it should be noted that carrying stuff on your head was an entirely gender-neutral pursuit. (Maybe the men, too, acquired marvellous posture from all that balancing, it’s just that I didn’t notice.) It should also be noted that this was a big city, the country’s commercial capital, and not the boonies. Carrying everything on your head was simply universal, end of story.

Are there any lessons for us here? Perhaps that there are two different senses of the word “stereotype”, which are so loosely related that they ought not to be sharing a word at all. One is when someone tries to make us think that all members of a class share all characteristics imputed to that class. For example, we might think that all Chinese-American schoolgirls are studious, obedient and play the violin. A tone-deaf, rebellious Chinese-American goof-off might then feel that we imagined that we knew her at first sight, when in fact we didn’t. It would then be reasonable to complain that we had “stereotyped her”.

The other meaning, however, lies in the generalisation as such. Some people attach the label of stereotype to any general statement, even if equipped with caveats. That is, even those using the word “most”, not “all”. But calling most Chinese-American children studious is not a stereotype, it is a true generalisation – the numbers can be crunched. The existence of an individual who does not fit the generalisation does not invalidate the general findings and we have done this outlier no wrong.

It may be suggested that the odium rightly attaching to stereotyping individuals – that is, just assuming that they come from the cookie-cutter, with its nasty, even fatal, results – has been transferred to the general statement, so that a great number of badly-educated people now consider that all such general statements are illegitimate. Except, of course, when they make them themselves.

So: once upon a time I thought that Africans carried stuff on their heads, because I saw it in Tintin. Adult and enlightened, I learned that this was a stereotype, and did penance for my sins. Only in my sixties did I acquire first-hand and uncontrovertible knowledge that Africans did indeed carry stuff on their heads, and the joke is on the indignant rebutters who had never been there. Please, Miss, can you take back my penance now?

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