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What are stereotypes? How are biases formed? What is the difference between discrimination and racism? And what does “white privilege” actually mean?

Saskia Maarse | March 21, 2022

Everyone has them: stereotypes and biases. All day our brain is busy with the structuring and labelling of things, happenings, and living beings. At the same time, these stereotypes often aren’t true, and we unwittingly pass unfair judgement convinced by our own righteousness. Discrimination is present in all cultures the world over. According to neuroscientists, everyone is unconsciously guilty of being racist in one form or another. For this reason, it’s important to understand these themes. What are stereotypes? How are biases formed? What is the difference between discrimination and racism? And what does “white privilege” actually mean?

Stereotypes are generalizations about a set of characterisations that we impose on someone or something. They are frequently used on television, in books, cartoons, and advertisements. They make people easily understand the role of the character in the wider story. As such, kings are frequently shown with a crown, Americans with a cowboy hat, the Dutch with wooden clogs, Chinese with a long ponytail, etc. This form of stereotype is deeply engrained in our mind and is experienced as useful knowledge. They keep our view of the world simple and understandable. Yet stereotypes are often not correct and regularly get in our way.

Stereotypes can lead to biases. A bias is a, frequently, culturally sensitive and emotionally charged opinion about someone. This is not to say that biases are not grounded in some truth, but they are often (too) quickly generalised. Usually these prejudices focus on negative characteristics of a particular group, for example, all football supporters are hooligans, all Germans drink a lot of beer, or all Muslim women are oppressed.

Biases as such can quickly lead to discrimination: the unequal treatment of a group (usually minority) on the basis of their ethnicity, race, beliefs, culture, sex, sexual orientation, language, disability, age, etc.

Discrimination can easily be caused by racism. Racism is the idea that one human race is better than the other. Institutional racism on the other hand, is more subtle. Here it often goes unnoticed, finding itself as part of the “fabric” of society, rearing its ugly head while looking for work, on the housing market, in the media, politics, etc. We often don’t notice how our behaviour contributes and enforces this system, which makes the conversation about it unpleasant. Even if you don’t mean it badly, doesn’t mean you’re not part of the problem.

White privilege
The term white privilege often goes hand in hand during conversation about racism and lead to complete misunderstandings. White privilege is not meant to be an accusation, although many people experience it this way. The term also doesn’t mean that white people haven’t had tough times or that everything comes easy. It’s a concept that people with light skin colour and because of this light complexion, receive more opportunity in their lives without having to put in extra effort. Although those privileges and that better starting position also depend (more or less) on your background, where you grew up (city or rural), your social class, and your family situation.

Tackling inequality
The approach to handling inequality starts with mindset, acknowledgement, and learning from biases. This asks participation from all skin colours. It means everyone must have the courage critically look at themselves and ask, “in which situations can and should I be more open? Am I really giving everyone the benefit of the doubt? Am I forming a biased opinion at first glance?” Uncomfortable? Of course. But not impossible. Some might even say necessary.

About Saskia

Saskia Maarse is an intercultural speaker, trainer and author. She writes and speaks about Dutch culture in both business / professional and social life. In her blogs, books and professional talks and workshops she uncovers the origins of deep-rooted Dutch characteristics. Saskia also explains what we can learn from and about other cultures – in areas like communication, leadership and human behaviour.

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