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Challenging Our Stereotypes

Written by: Evelina Silveira, President, Diversity at Work in London Inc, Author of Diversity and Inclusion on a Budget

In our early childhood education, we are taught to classify, sort and separate. We categorize by shape, colour, texture, and by things that we like and do not like. This early training helps us to sort out large chunks of material into smaller pieces which are more easily understood. While this system may work with objects, it can be problematic when it comes to trying to categorize people and placing them into labels or stereotypes. Each day we engage in this labelling process whether consciously or unconsciously.

I was on the bus one morning travelling through some of the less than desirable parts of town. A man in his mid-thirties got on the bus with what looked to be his 5 year old daughter. He seemed a bit rough around the edges, heavily tattooed and on the messy side. This tough man held a little pink brush in his right hand. He sat his daughter on his lap and proceeded to brush her hair and make the neatest pig tails. All the while she was smiling and kissing her father’s hand as he admiringly transformed his little daughter’s tangled hair into a tamed coiffure.

While I sat and admired the interaction in front of me, behind me were a couple who regularly attend a methadone clinic in the downtown core. On the surface they would appear kind of scary. Dishevelled appearance and missing teeth – people you might want to avoid. However, over the years I have seen this couple who live in government housing show generousity to others on the bus. Lending others an ear, offering their poverty-stricken neighbours some of their own food. That day they were engaged in a deep conversation about the upcoming election, and judging by their vocabulary they would have appeared to be well educated.

I get to the conference that I was supposed to attend and visit my associate. After the conference she told me that a woman who was wearing a burka had approached her before her talk to tell her that a man at the conference has stolen the books that she had on display. My friend who was about to start her talk did not have the time to do anything about it. As it turns out the woman in the burka chased the man outside the school and demanded that he hand over what he had stolen. At the end of the conference the woman in the burka handed over the text book to my friend.

I was pleasantly surprised by each of these incidents that I witnessed in one day. They were a gift to me. I was challenged by common stereotypes that not only I have but that society has in general. It is hard for us to imagine a tough looking guy feeling comfortable fixing his daughter’s hair in public. We don’t expect people who have a problem with addictions and are poor may have a strong depth of political analysis. And surely, with all of the images of passive women in burkas in the media we would not expect one to stand up to a man and demand stolen merchandise be returned.

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