Abu Dhabi, UAETuesday 25 September 2018

If we truly want the best person for the job, stereotypes are the last thing we should rely on

Hiring people on the basis of skin colour is pure discrimination − and that can only ever be counter-productive 

Students from University College London celebrate with friends and family following a graduation ceremony. ReutersREUTERS/Toby Melville
Students from University College London celebrate with friends and family following a graduation ceremony. ReutersREUTERS/Toby Melville

The furore over a UAE-based nursery group advertising for a teacher with white skin is a classic example of how not to build a meritocracy. Recruitment based on a superficial attribute, entirely unrelated to the skills and qualities required to do the job, is as foolish as it is socially damaging. This story speaks to me of our lazy reliance on stereotypes and our vulnerability to exploitation by those who would prey on our tendency to over-generalise and under-think.

During my first term at Liverpool University, I assumed that my fellow students – the ones who spoke in cut-glass accents and had an aristocratic air – were all super-smart, much smarter than me at least. They tended to be privileged white youngsters from the southeast of England, while I had brown skin and was from the northwest. I decided to keep my mouth shut during tutorials, embarrassed by the imagined incomprehensibility of my Liverpool accent, and sure that my classmates could provide far superior input than me. In my self-imposed silence, I began to question what I was doing at university and whether I really belonged there. I considered dropping out.

At the end of the first term, I was called into the office by the departmental chair. A kindly American lady, she sat me down and proceeded to congratulate me. My assignments and exam papers, it transpired, were all outstanding. I was the highest-performing student in the year group.

I retell this anecdote not to be boastful, but to highlight how wrong and potentially damaging stereotypes can be. I’m ashamed to say that I had judged my classmates by their accents and complexions, and assumed that they were all my intellectual superiors. My stereotyping had almost cost me my academic career, and had, for a whole term, deprived my classmates of my contributions.

Stereotyping is a very human tendency. When we have little information to go on, we often revert to judging people by their most superficial qualities. Indeed, when quick decisions are necessary, stereotypes can be useful. That is why they are part of our common cognitive inheritance – in extreme situations, they can help us to survive. However, over-reliance on them is lazy and problematic. Operating on stereotypes might save us time and effort, but such surface judgments can lead to discrimination and rob us of beneficial life experiences.

A further danger of stereotyping is that it can become habitual. Even when a wealth of nuanced information is easily obtained, people often still prefer the effort-free option of resorting to established preconceptions. Do that frequently enough and stereotypes become ingrained and highly resistant to change.

After I graduated from university, I immediately went to work at the same institution. One of my research projects involved developing a psychological test named Anamorphic Micro. This innovative way of helping people with anorexia nervosa come to terms with their body image problems attracted lots of media attention. I remember a news reporter and camera crew arriving at my office. The reporter immediately, and mistakenly, shook hands with my white colleague, Elroy. “A pleasure to meet you, Justin,” she said. “We’re really excited to see the software and do the story.” Elroy and I exchanged knowing smiles and gently corrected the reporter’s stereotype-driven error.

I have found stereotyping in the UAE to be mostly the same as it is in the UK, the only differences being slight variations on the stereotypes associated with different ethnic and national groups. The UAE is home to more than 200 different nationalities, which makes it reasonably fertile ground for the expression of stereotyping by nationality and ethnicity.

One of my former colleagues at Zayed University − a distinguished professor, who happened to be from southeast Asia − often fell victim to stereotyping while in the UAE. On one occasion, we were at a conference together, when another attendee loudly ordered my colleague to “bring more water”. Much to everyone else’s embarrassment, he had wrongly assumed that my fellow professor was part of the catering team.

Stereotyping can rely on us using only the most basic aspects of external appearance to evaluate the holistic worth of a person. This can work with objects, but never with humans. If we see the Mercedes Benz badge on a car, we might rightly expect a certain level of luxury. But nationality, social class, and ethnicity are not brands. Our purple, black or blue passport will never be an indicator of intellect, morality, sociability or industriousness. The same is true of our white, black or brown skin.

The nursery group that ran the advert went beyond silent stereotyping and crossed the line into explicit discrimination. I suspect that the organisation wanted a white-skinned employee to take advantage of the preconceived ideas that some of its potential customers have about white-skinned people.

However, if we want to build world-class, meritocratic institutions, we need reach far beyond our lazy dependence upon, and exploitation of, stereotypes. As Jalaluddin Rumi, one of the wisest people I have ever read, famously wrote: “Don’t look at my form, but take what is in my hand.”

Dr Justin Thomas is professor of psychology at Zayed University