By now the story of Ahmed Mohamed, the teenage ninth grader who was arrested and interrogated on suspicion of bringing a “hoax bomb” to school is stale gist that has blown over as many of us would say. However, Ahmed’s ordeal in the hands of his teachers and police officers in Irving, Texas USA has once again brought the bigger problem of stereotypes and its effect on individuals, groups of people, and the society in general to the fore. Many times, people are stereotyped because of their race, religion, ethnicity, sex, skin colour, nationality or anything else the human mind can conjure up. The reality is that virtually all of us are guilty of prejudice against another person or group of people because we have a preconceived notion about who we think they are or how we feel they should be.
Ahmed is only one of the very few lucky ones whose embarrassing situation unwittingly thrust in the limelight, having assumed celebrity status since the events of the 14th of September. Thousands of people who face prejudice around the world daily are not so lucky. Having read different accounts of what happened at the MacArthur High School that day, I will not be so quick to vilify the teacher or principal who called in the police like many have done. I am tempted to give them the benefit of the doubt considering the history of terrorist attacks in the USA. Nevertheless, they cannot be totally absolved of blame in the matter either, as no move was made to evacuate students out of the school building as one would have expected them to do if they truly believed that the safety and security of everyone had been compromised. Which is what makes it easy for a good number of people to believe Ahmed was only treated the way he was because he is a Muslim. Particularly with the history of islamophobia and racial profiling in the Irving Texas community. Bottom line is – the Sudanese-American boy appears to have been stereotyped because of his race and religion.
Bringing it closer to home, how many times have we tagged a man the derogatory name “Boko Haram” without even saying a word to him first simply because he is evidently from northern Nigeria? When we hear that there has been a ritual killing somewhere, what tribe do we subconsciously point accusing fingers at? Why is there a widespread belief that Ijebu people are stingy? Why is the Igbo tribe believed to be synonymous with money? Every light skinned girl must be bleaching their skin, Yoruba men always cheat in relationships, every lady from Edo state must be a prostitute or must have been one at some point in their life. Short people always seek to be noticed, Muslims are almost always violent and all pastors are thieves who rob their congregation blind every week are all stereotypes that are common in this part of the world. This further affirms that stereotyping people is not peculiar to a particular region or race, rather it is something almost everybody does!
The problem with stereotypes is that it puts a label on people. Stereotypes limit a person’s personality. Even in less serious matters! How many times have we thought a guy was weird because he doesn’t watch football? (I admit that I am guilty of this too). Personally, I know a couple of people (ladies especially) who find my love for football and a few of other “manly” sports a little strange. Oh! If she’s young, unmarried and successful, then she must be warming the bed of some “Oga at the top!” If he is young and successful even though he wasn’t born with a silver spoon, then he must have peddled drugs or engaged in advanced fee fraud at one time or the other.
Stereotypes limit people in countless ways. Even the seemingly good stereotypes are harmful. For instance; the fact that a person comes from a long line of ancestors who have always been successful lawyers almost always translates to the expectation that they must pursue law as a profession. It doesn’t matter if they have absolutely no interest in that career path and would rather be a painter. Countries like Kenya and Ethiopia are renowned for their long standing success in middle and long distance races, and so we discourage our Nigerian athletes who have the potential to give their Eastern African counterparts a run for their money in the track event, simply because somewhere in our subconscious, we have conceded that the dominance of these two countries when it comes to long distance races will never end! A classic case of allowing a stereotype (albeit a seemingly reasonable one) to halt one’s progress.
The American Civil Liberties Union (ALCU) believe that Arabs, Muslims and South Asians have been targeted for minor immigrant violations since the unfortunate September 11 attacks on the USA, thereby resulting in prejudice against people from this regions of the world…one of the reasons why many were quick to believe that Ahmed Mohammed’s case was beyond a security scare, but rather a case of a knee jerk reaction and low tolerance for the slightest semblance of wrong doing by a Sudanese immigrant. Suffice to say that if things continue this way it will only be a matter of time before the centre can no longer hold and a major crisis erupts.
Stereotypes does no one any good. It is always safer and better to get to know people one-on-one before forming an opinion about them regardless of what popular belief says about their race, sex, nationality or religion.