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Maintaining a Community Free from Stereotypes

According to Wikipedia, a stereotype involves ... concepts of ingroups and outgroups. Ingroups are viewed as normal and superior, and are generally the group that one associates with or aspires to join. An outgroup is simply all the other groups. They are seen as lesser than or inferior to the in-groups.

BellaOnline's mission is to create a community which is free of stereotypes, where each person feels enabled, supported, and encouraged to follow her own dreams and to achieve whatever goals she sets for herself. It is important therefore that our forum system be free from stereotypes or language which supports those stereotypes.

What is interesting about this is that few people believe that their own thoughts involve stereotypes. They feel that their thoughts are simply "true." So if Mary was asked, "are all people from China excellent musicians?" she might respond with "No, no, that is a silly stereotype. Clearly people from China have a range of musical talents." However, if Mary was asked, "Are all women nurturing and soft?" she might respond with "Absolutely! It is the normal state of a woman to be nurturing and soft!" As the intro definition indicates, this belief structure then puts all women who are not nurturing and soft into the "outgroup" - the abnormal ones who are inferior.

History has demonstrated just how damaging these types of stereotypes can be. Studies done with young children find that if teachers tell a group of students they are gifted, the students will excel and get top grades, whatever their starting situation was. See "Pygmalion in the classroom" for just one such study. If teachers tell a group of students that they have learning disabilities, then the students will have issues that snowball over time. People internalize the messages they are told.

Only a hundred years ago, women were told by doctors that their brains were not "strong enough" to handle college level courses. It would literally damage their brain to attempt to do that. Now in modern times the average US college campus is 57% women. It is now men who are underrepresented in the learning environment. If a person in 1900 had been asked, "are women good college students," the majority would have said "No!" with conviction. They would not have thought it was a stereotype. They would have thought it was a simple fact. It was the culture which created the stereotype, and culture has now changed to remove it.

It was not long ago that Africans and African-Americans were seen of as completely incapable of learning to read or write. Common opinion was that these groups had "smaller brains" and therefore were physically unable to absorb these skills. Martin Luther King, Jr. would beg to differ! Again, people of the time saw this as a simple fact. In reality it was a harmful stereotype.

With stereotypes being so insidious, and becoming part of a belief system in such an integrated manner, what are some ways to ensure that stereotypes are avoided?

Be wary of any sentence that states
- "All xxxx are ..."
- "This group always ..."
- "Women are all more xxx than men are ...

These types of phrases are warning signs. There are few things in life that are so all encompassing. A person having Irish heritage does not make him a heavy drinker. A person having Polish heritage does not make him slow witted. A person being homosexual does not make him a flamboyant dresser. A person being in a wheelchair does not mean they have no desire for a partner and kids. Not all women are nurturing healers. Not all men would enjoy being Rambo. The beauty of life is that each one of us is a unique individual with a myriad of traits and desires. It is important to respect that a given person can be the way they've chosen to be without being "lesser" or "inferior".

A woman is not "less of a woman" if she chooses not have kids. A man is not "less of a man" if he is nurturing and wishes to be a nurse. An African-American is not "less of an African-American" if she falls in love with and chooses to marry a caucasian. We are all unique, and traits are equally available to all of us.

A Hispanic is not "acting white" if she chooses to get a Master's degree in English Literature. She is following her dream and listening to her own voice. A woman is not "acting like a male" if she dreams of working on a submarine. She has her aspirations and should be supported in reaching them.

Realize that Cultural Stereotypes Change
We might feel strongly that little girls always wear pink and little boys always wear blue. But only 100 years ago, this was the opposite! Boys were in pink and girls were in blue. Something that we might feel is absolutely true in modern times is simply a whim of fancy. Who knows, in another 100 years we might find the notion of "labeling" babies by color a quaint one. Do we think that all caucasian babies should be in X color and all African-American babies should be in Y color?

Only a few hundred years ago, if a person was seriously injured, the image that typically sprang to mind was of a female healer. It was typical for the members of the community who handled healing tasks to be female. Fifty years ago, the image would have been of a male doctor in a white coat. Female doctors became a rarity for reasons relating to the school system that was set up. In modern times, the number of women and men graduating from medical school is just about even.

Not too long ago, elderly people were often seen as the cornerstone of a family. They were the source of wisdom and knowledge. Family meals centered around them. On weekends, people would come to visit them and spend time with them. In modern times, in many cultures, the elderly are seen as frail and weak, out of touch with current tasks. They are put off into senior centers. Aging is seen as a negative thing, with a focus on dementia and decay.

Realize that the Earth is Multi-Cultural
It might be that everyone you know believes a certain thing. Your family and friends all reinforce that thought pattern. You can have long discussions and find perfect agreement on an issue.

However, once you begin discussing topics with people from other parts of the world, you might realize that there are many points of view on the topic. It is not a "given" that boys grow up loving sports and football. It is not "natural" that boys are thrilled by a game of soccer. It is certainly one choice! But in other parts of the world, it could seem "natural" that boys sit for long hours and learn how to play instruments. It can be natural that they read religious texts and spend most of their time in study. In those cultures it could be the soccer-dreaming boy who is "not in line with the cultural norm."

Be cautious about assuming that, just because your local community supports a belief, that it is a global statement of fact. Mothers in the US would rarely dream of sewing their daughters' genitals shut. Mothers in Somalia do this as a matter of course. If you asked a mother in Iowa what the possible life paths for her daughter might be, you could get very different answers than if you asked a mother in Iraq. Women in the US can be bus drivers and taxi drivers. Women in Saudi Arabia are not allowed to drive at all.

Summary
The world is full of a myriad of beliefs and ideas. Certainly we respect that every member of our forum has been raised to have certain cultural beliefs. Imagine a woman has been told since her childhood in Saudi Arabia that it is "right and natural" for her not to be able to vote, and that she needs a male's permission to travel or to get a job. She might come to feel that she agrees with the guidelines and that, after all, she's not as qualified as a man to do these things. Again studies demonstrate over and over again that what we are repeatedly told, we begin to absorb and believe.

However, when posting in the BellaOnline public forums, please be respectful of other people and refrain from posting stereotypes or blanket statements about how "all" women or "all" elderly or "all" homosexuals are. The beauty of our world is that we are each unique. We each have our own traits and qualities and desires and dreams. Even if a person is a female heterosexual from New York City, there is no way to know if she likes tattoos or disagrees with them, if she is a wiccan or a Catholic, if she is nurturing or type-A, if she's a fan of revenge or a peaceful yoga practitioner. Each person is a snowflake, an individual, and that is the beauty of our world!

We've been told that we are naive because the idea of a "utopia" forum where people get along is impossible. We've even been told that we're in for a "nightmare" because women are more vehement and passionate in forum posts than men are! Over our ten years, we have found none of this to be true. In general our forum is peaceful, compassionate, and provides support and encouragement for millions of visitors. Our women AND men posters are helpful and kind. Are these stereotypes? They are certainly the vast majority of what we see in our posts, they are the culture we nurture here, and we are content to continue to focus on this as part of our overall BellaOnline mission.

Please let us know if you have any questions about our guidelines!

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