Module 1: Creating Intercultural Awareness and Understanding Attitudes


How would you describe people from Italy, Japan, or Mexico? What about Indigenous people from Canada or from another country? What attitudes and behaviours come to mind when you think about a Black person? What stereotypes do people have about your own cultural group? There is no shortage of stereotypes about cultural groups; they have managed to filter into our everyday lives. We may not see or be quite conscious about stereotypes, but they are always around us. One of the challenges about eliminating stereotypes is that they are very easy to perpetuate through unfair comments, jokes, inaccurate advertisements, media, and so on. Stereotypes can support a vicious circle of false beliefs directed at different cultural groups while creating a social stigma among those very groups. For this reason, we must understand them; to deconstruct stereotypes, we need to face them.

Activity: Identifying Stereotypes

Think about the associations you make in terms of cultural attributes, icons, values, or behaviours for the following people. What stereotypes can you identify for each one of them?

Think About This

Looking back at the stereotypes you identified, consider the following questions:

  • Do you know many people from those countries?
  • Have you ever visited or lived amongst them?
  • Where did you learn about them?
  • How do you know about their behaviours, symbols, and icons?
  • Where do you think those stereotypes came from?

Where Do Cultural Stereotypes Come From?

Unless you have travelled extensively, immersed yourself in another culture, have a continuous relationship with people from other countries, or have taken time to study other cultures, it is likely that what you know about other people comes from external influences: Something you watched in a film, repeated iconography added to advertisements, products, or displayed in shops, or they could originate from something you heard from a relative at the dinner table, from a friend’s comments, or even based on a single event you experienced.

When we have limited awareness or knowledge of other cultures, we tend to rely on stereotypes as sources of information. By doing this, we perpetuate ideas of groups that do not reflect reality.

Stereotypes are overgeneralizations of perceived behaviours applied to an entire group based on limited observations and an oversimplification of ideas.

Some stereotypes may seem positive. For example, “Black people are great athletes, Latin Americans are great dancers, Japanese women are hard-working,” but they are still overgeneralizations of potential attributes associated with a group. One of the problems this creates is that when we meet someone from that group, we expect them to be like their stereotype and feel disappointed when they are not.

It is important to consider that within each cultural or national context, racial stereotypes tend to favour and highlight the positive and desirable attributes of the dominant race or group (e.g., White Canadians) while devaluing or limiting the appreciation of minority groups (e.g., Black Canadians, Indigenous peoples, Southeast Asians, and so on). Stereotypes can and often lead to unfair treatment of people because of the assumptions and attitudes they produce. Stereotypes may become prejudice, which further becomes actions that contribute to discrimination.

Prejudice is a preconceived opinion of a group that is not based on reason or derived from experience through interactions. It means having negative opinions of others without sufficient knowledge. Prejudice results from constantly relying on unfair representations of a group and lead to hatred or discrimination.

Discrimination is an unjust action or unfair treatment of a person or a group on the grounds of their identity. For instance, based on race, sex, ability, or origin.

Constantly relying on unfair representations of a group affects the way we interact with and judge other people. This can work on an unconscious level, but can also turn into policy, where unjust practices can hide. In addition, stereotypes are damaging to people because they can put pressure on members of culturally diverse groups to be more like members of the dominant group.

Activity: Pressures of stereotypes

Watch this TED Talk by Canwen Xu, “I’m not your Asian stereotype” (9’38”) and pay attention to the examples she provides and her discussion on conforming to or confronting the dominant group. Keep in mind that, although her example addresses a Chinese-American identity, her story reflects the experience of people across many countries. As you watch, think about your own experience and pressures around you and how this may reflect the experience of people you know that perhaps you have not considered before.

To follow up, think about the following questions and enter your answer in the space provided.

Based on Canwen Xu’s talk…

Canwen Xu’s talk makes reference to the American melting pot, an idea embraced in the United States in the 20th century that continues to be supported by many, where cultural differences “melt down” to create a single, strong national identity. The expectation is that people who are different should assimilate into the culture and be more like the mainstream American. The problem with this is that it assumes that assimilating into the American culture is the most a person can aspire to while diluting or suppressing one’s cultural background. The pressure to conform is present across all levels and contexts where, in order to succeed, people must try to be more like the dominant White majority.

In comparison, in the Canadian context, the idea of multiculturalism was also borne in the 20th century and emerged as an object of national conversation. However, instead of supporting the cultural assimilationist views of the United States, it encouraged the appreciation of individual cultures, thus fostering ethnic diversity. This perspective intends to foster better understanding and respect across cultures by appreciating differences instead of expecting assimilation, creating a nation of proud Canadians that are free to speak their language and practice their culture. Still, the Canadian dream of multiculturalism has a long way to go until equity and respect across cultures are fully enacted in everyday life.

Think About This

Think about your own situation and experience:

  • What stereotypes do you think people have about your self-identity and your cultural identity?
  • Remember a time when you felt stereotyped about your culture, appearance, sex, or abilities and aptitudes. Did you feel pressure to conform to the more dominant norm? How did that make you feel?
  • If you have travelled abroad, have people shared stereotypes they hold about your country of origin? What did you do in that situation?
  • Take a moment to consider how stereotypes may affect people you know. People you know could be relatives, friends, co-workers, fellow students, professors, advisors, people with whom you interact.

TakeAway Points

  • It is very easy to rely on stereotypes to create a mental image of other people, what they do, how they behave, how they live, and what they are like. The danger of this is that it reinforces unfair and inaccurate representations of people, ignoring that each person is an individual with their own identity and personality.
  • Any of us who are constantly stereotyped may feel pressure to conform to the demands of the greater dominant society. For example, the message might be: “You may be welcome in the country, but don’t try to bring and display your cultural identity in our cities and towns.”
  • People may consciously or unconsciously shed part of their cultural identity, which can have a negative effect on maintaining the original one. It should be said, however, that there is a difference between conforming to the dominant cultural norms and adapting to living and interacting across cultures. You can achieve the latter by appreciating your own and other cultures and expanding your intercultural competencies.

Try These Strategies

  • Ask questions to cultural others that come from a place of curiosity instead of making assumptions about them.
  • Practice suspending judgement: Take a step back and question the information in front of you: “Does this idea/statement apply to all the people from that group?” If the answer is “No,” it is likely a stereotype. Remember that there will always be exceptions to cultural observations across all groups; not everyone from a group is the same.
  • Instead of asking, “Why is your last name X”? Where are you really from?” try asking, “Where is your family from?”
  • You may rely on cultural generalizations (observations about a culture that are carefully and more accurately formed) instead of relying on stereotypes. For example, instead of saying, “Russian people are cold, they don’t trust outsiders,” you can say, “It may take longer to establish a close relationship with Russian people, you may first need to develop trust.”