[STAFF EDITORIAL] Stereotypes discourage connection


YOUR CLASSMATE: STEREOTYPE EDITION. Even when stereotypes are occasionally accurate, they are limited, and they can lead to unfair judgments made on appearances alone.

When walking down the halls at a small school, almost every face is familiar. Automatically, the brain categorizes and classifies people based on first impressions. After time, those initial impressions become cemented and hard to look past. 

According to Simply Psychology, scientist Henri Tajfel proposed the idea of social categorization as a natural phenomenon, based on the normal cognitive process of dividing things into groups. It is normal for brains to split people into an in-group and an out-group.  

While Tajfel’s study justifies the idea of categorization, when the classification of one’s classmates becomes a habit and fellow students are seen simply as “hockey boys” or “theater kids,” a disconnect forms between the way a person is perceived and their actual, multi-faceted reality. While it is natural and even, accurate to classify people based on the hobbies or aspects of themselves they most regularly display, these categories are never the full picture. These perceptions must not get in the way of creating relationships across these categorical divides.

Collaboration is an important tool in the classroom, and it may be difficult to engage in a meaningful Harkness discussion or complete a group project if everyone in the class is judging each other on the very minimal amount of information they have about their classmates. Rather than making judgments based on what others have gossiped about or the main thing that the student is known for doing, judgments should develop from first-hand experience. 

The first impression someone makes is not always an accurate representation of who they are.”

The first impression someone makes is not always an accurate representation of who they are. Recognize that a single interaction cannot reveal everything about a person. If everyone knows that a certain person is a superstar athlete, don’t assume that they don’t also enjoy reading. If a student seems reserved, give them a chance to open up during discussions before pegging them as quiet. 

Sometimes first impressions or stereotypes are accurate. But what’s the worst thing that can happen from giving a person the benefit of the doubt? The worst-case scenario is that the initial judgments made were accurate, and nothing was lost. 

While it may be hard to address these misjudgments directly, simple steps can be taken to avoid them. When hearing gossip around school, take it with a grain of salt. Try not to form an opinion on someone before interacting with them face to face in a meaningful way. 

Recently, there has been talk of restructuring the way the Peer Helpers program works. This process is the perfect opportunity to discourage labeling and categorization and encourage open-mindedness and branching out. Ways to do this could include a “Switch it up day” at lunch, where students are given randomized seating assignments in order to encourage grade, group, and gender mixing. Students can begin this by challenging themselves to just sit somewhere different around the Harkness table in their next class.

St. Paul Academy and Summit School is a caring community. Every year, juniors come home from junior retreat gushing about how wonderful it felt to see their grade open up to one another. Senior speeches, allowing each student the chance to make themselves heard across the entire school, are prioritized. It’s plain to see that SPA is a community of students who want to understand and connect with each other. The only thing standing in the way is often unconscious categorizing. Untraining the brain’s habit to label is no simple task, but with greater school-wide efforts and personal reflection, it’s possible to overcome it – and it just may bring the community closer together than ever. 

This editorial was originally published in the November 2019 print issue of The Rubicon.