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Emails from California, USA: Sophinarath Cheang

Since arriving in California, I have noticed that I can find just about any kind of food from any nation. I have been impressed by the diversity of ethnic groups in this state. With a population of 37 million, California is the most populous state in the US and it is an amazingly melting pot of cultures and people. This fact alone has made me curious about the many ethnic groups in the state.

According to the US Census Bureau, white people make up 41.7 percent of the population in California, followed by Hispanics and people of Latino origin (37 percent). The statistic also shows that 12.5 percent of Californian is Asian, 6.6 percent black or African American and 2.6 percent multiracial.

What are Hispanic or Latino people? That was one of my first questions after I first arrived. I was told that these people “speak Spanish, and/or they are from Mexico”.

When too many people live together, there tends to be some unpleasant predicaments, which can lead to stereotypes. So, what is a stereotype? Dr Jose Rodriguez, a professor at the Communication Studies Department of California State University, Long Beach, defined stereotypes as “a general belief that a person creates about a social or ethnic group”.

This belief does not help us relate to a person as a unique individual. We stop seeing the other person’s essential humanity. Instead, the belief encourages “objectification”.

Accents and stereotypes somewhat go hand in hand. In California, it isn’t a surprise to hear different accents every day. People use accents to detect identities and link it to stereotypes. I went to a coffee shop to get my breakfast and I noticed that the waiter had an Hispanic accent.

Right off the bat, something in my head told me that he would use double negatives to say his sentences. And sure enough, he did, which is acceptable in Spanish, but not in English grammar. Using double negatives such as “I don’t want nothing” or “I don’t know nobody” is a common Hispanic way of speaking.

On my very first day at school, I remember taking a maths assessment and experiencing my first encounter with stereotyping. One student told me that I should have taken a higher-level test because I looked smart. Asians are believed to be geniuses at maths and do well in business, finance and marketing. However, I was not one of those nerdy Asians. I failed the test and was placed into the intermediate Algebra class.

There is even a stereotype that comes with fields of study as well. Generally, students in Communication Studies Major are poor at maths. Thus, it was also a surprise for my advisor to see me, an Asian, taking Communication Studies. I was the first international student he’s known taking this major.

This issue of stereotyping is more complicated than I thought. Dr Rodriguez said the consequences of stereotyping could be positive or negative, and generally, we focus on negative stereotypes because anti-social stereotypes can serve as guides for dysfunctional behaviour and can lead to prejudice and discrimination.

Are stereotypes always true? Melinda Manlowe, a professor at Long Beach City College, once said in a lecture that stereotypes were based on limited information about individuals, and it’s “oversimplified, exaggerated, and overgeneralised”.

Although Dr Rodriguez said that avoiding stereotyping people was very challenging for most people, he suggested that after recognising something as a stereotype, we should try to let it go and focus on an individual’s characteristics such as their uniqueness and specialness. I totally agree that we should never judge people based on stereotypes.

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