On 23 October 2016 the Knowledge Quarter presented the talk “Cultural Identities and Stereotype Threat ” as part of the Bloomsbury Festival at the Conway Hall.
In line with the festival theme “Language of social change”, the curatorial idea was to create a discussion in which specialists from different fields could exchange expertise, questioning what the relationship between cultural identity and stereotypization is. How and why do we construct stereotypes? How does a stereotype become a threat?
The talk met with strong interest and the chair of the panel discussion, Jamie Brassett, from Innovation Management at Central Saint Martins, introduced it presenting the Knowledge Quarter and the speakers to a very diverse audience in a crowded library at the Conway Hall.
Prof. Bencie Woll, Director of Deafness Cognition and Language Research Centre at UCL, presented an overview of how English speakers use language to refer to people who are deaf or have a disability. Bencie showed how ordinary linguistic terms and expressions used to refer to disability, in general, and deafness, in particular, bear the burden of a negative connotation. She illustrated how the Deaf community is a diverse community in itself which expresses a rich and historically complex culture and she also presented some examples of discrimination against deaf people as well as explaining the derogatory implications of expressions such as “hearing impaired people” to talk about deaf people. “Hearing impaired” defines deaf people solely in terms of broken or defective ears and it ignores all positive aspects of deafness: the Deaf community, sign language, and deaf culture. Bencie showed how Deaf people can turn the tables on those who label them. For example, an advert for a BSL poetry performance read: “Voice interpreted for the sign-language-impaired.“
“Deaf” is not a crude word because Deaf is another way of being human and “Deaf” is what Deaf people prefer to be called.
Suggested international signs for disability
Dr Barbara Warnock, Education and Outreach Manager at the Wiener Library, presented items from the library archival collection illustrating the Nazi construction of stereotypes against Jews. Barbara showed the image of The Poodle-Pug-Dachshund-Pinscher and other contemplative stories. This anti-Semitic book for children produced under the Nazi regime compare Jews to some types of animals and invited children to enjoy the stories while questioning who those animals represented. As a second item, Barbara showed the manipulative propaganda conveyed in the form of data and statistical problems. In fact, in the Nazi school textbooks you could find problems asking how much it would cost to care for the ‘hereditarily unfit’ in terms of a ‘normal’ worker’s annual salary. Young readers were effectively asked to put a value on human lives and encouraged to see one kind of life as more valid than another.
Dr Farouk Topan, director of the Swahili Centre and visiting lecturer at the Institute for the Study of Muslim Civilisations (ISMC) talked about the representation of Muslims and how that affects perceptions and stereotypes. Farouk considered that stereotypes are customary social constructs which become very dangerous when they are used to represent some part of society as a threat. Farouk distinguished between the concepts conveyed by the term ‘Islam’ and the term ‘Muslim’ and illustrated the diversity within the Muslim community itself. In fact, the faith in Islam has developed in different geographical areas and the religion has merged with different cultures worldwide. However, not only have some cultures embraced the faith but, in some cases, they have transformed some cultural norms into religious norms wanting the faith to resemble aspects of their own cultural identity. As a result, an idea of Islam has been exported which embeds a cultural connotation which does not belong to all Muslim cultures and is prone to be adopted as a stereotype for all Muslims.
Finally Dr Parvathi Raman, chair of the Centre for Migration and Diaspora Studies at SOAS, looked at the notion of ‘migrants’ and stereotypes. Parvathi illustrated the different contrasting representations of migrants in the media often designed to create threatening stereotypes about a phenomenon that is constitutive of UK identity. Parvathi talked about the so called ‘Calais Jungle’ and how its representation in the media completely overlooks the spirit of initiative, the originality and the positive effort that thousands of people have put into it, trying to transform precarious situations in a place able to host a community with café, shops and space for small performances.
Finally, Parvathi presented the audience with her point of view, as a social anthropologist, on the understanding of mobility as part of our nature as human beings and not as a threat to others. Parvathi illustrated the complexity of the international migration system built on enforced borders and norms which work in favour of the privileged few; able to move along safe routes around the world, at the expense of a majority that is pushed into illegality and fatal journeys.
The discussion moved forward comparing how the notion of stereotype develops in the different areas of study. Answering the questions from the audience, it became clear that the best practice to fight negative stereotypes consists of creating the common ground where what is perceived as diverse and threatening, is in fact acknowledged and experienced directly in its complexity and richness. Not only stereotypes reduce identities to few threatening traits creating dark manipulative caricatures of the ‘other’ and trying to solidify our cultural identity in evoked fears, but it also completely disregards the fluid nature of our cultural identity, able to redefine, transform and enrich itself in relation to the context and the new cultural and geographical environments in which we live.
This first Knowledge Quarter talk highlighted the potential offered by bringing together scholars and researchers from different disciplines, comparing their views and readings of a phenomenon. The discussion explored different possible directions, many of which are open for development: I would be fascinated to hear more about Deaf culture and poetry, to look into how data and statistics can be presented and distorted for propagandistic purposes, to listen to a discussion illustrating different case studies in which negative stereotypes have been broken down and a common ground has been created through education, workshops and the arts so as to provide the experience of the complexity of cultural identities.
Angelo Napolano, Knowledge Quarter