Kirsten van den Hul on Flirting with Stereotypes

 You are the Minister of Integration. Your first action? 

My first action as Minister of Integration? Change my job title. The Ministry of Integration would be called the Ministry of Diversity. Why? I believe there is something intrinsically wrong with the word integration. Integration means amalgamating newcomers into an existing group, the famous “melting pot” principle. Just throw the new ingredients (Muslims, Maghrebians, refugees or other migrants) into the national soup, let them cook for a while, stir in some tolerance, language and education et voilá: the integrated social soup is ready to be served. Bon appétit!

But what does that really leave us with? A rather bland concoction, which does not do justice to any of the seperate ingredients. The different tastes have been neutralised, the colors have faded: the soup has become boring, if you ask me.

Quite a shame, really. Isn't our ability to deal with “difference” what will help us survive in an increasingly complex, globalising world? Shouldn't we teach our children diversity skills rather than drilling them in national identity?

I'd rather see society as a multi-dimensional mosaic rather than a one-size-fits-all melting pot. A society that values diversity and difference as unique components of its social and cultural DNA.  After all, the whole is greater than the sum of its parts.

Who is ‘the other’ for you?

“Good evening madam. Is Mister Van den Hul available?” a young man's voice asks me from his call center. “No, he isn't”, I answer. “Would you happen to know when would be a good time for us to call him?” the young man persists. I sigh. “There is no Mister Van den Hul at this address. There is a Ms Van den Hul, and you are speaking to her now.” Silence on the other side. I picture the young man, frantically searching his script. But apparently there were no clues in his manual about what to do in case of Ms. It takes a while before he finally gets it. “Oh.. Oh I see. So you are the main resident and breadwinner at this address?” he stutters. Yes ladies and gentlemen. It's 2012 and not only a Mr but also a Ms can be a main resident and breadwinner. But apparently that revolution skipped this particular call center.

As a (blonde, white-skinned, short-haired) woman of the world, I have often been “the other”. When I was in Cuba for example and was refused a ride on the back of a truck,  since the driver felt it would not be a suitable means of transportation for a lady (meaning I could afford a taxi). Or when I was living in Tunisia and was told the café I wanted to smoke a waterpipe was not “mixed” (meaning not serving women). Or when kids in my home town in the east of Holland told me I was “import” (meaning my parents weren't locals). Nothing major, of course. I survived. But still, those situations of unexpected exclusion have been very insightful.

I wish everybody could experience some form of exclusion or other “otherness” at some point in their life. It helps to train your empathy towards other “others” and build awareness for the ever-present threat of being blind-sided by your cultural, social, economical or biological bias.

Let's face it: we are all “the other”, at some point or another. 

 Can you name a stereotype that has a negative influence on public debate? What are its consequences?

“You're a feminist?” I was waiting for an elevator at the United Nations General Assembly building in New York, about to witness the official launch of UN Women, the new entity for gender equality and the empowerment of women. “Excuse me?” The lady who spoke to me was looking at me over her reading glasses. She looked at my hands, my dress, my high heels, and then rested her gaze on my face. “Would you consider yourself a feminist?” she repeated. “Yes, I would actually.” I did not quite understand where she was going. “Hmmm. Interesting. Quite interesting indeed.”

“I'm not sure I understand...” I replied. She looked at my hands again. “Nailpolish” she answered. “You are wearing NAILPOLISH. And high heels. And red lipstick.” I looked at my hands. Yes, I wore nailpolish. Ruby red, to be precise. And yes, I was wearing a dress and high heels. I was going to an official launch, right? Wrong. Very wrong, according to the lady. “I've been around for a while now. And I've found feminism and nailpolish to be mutually exclusive. One can not be a feminist and wear nailpolish. Nor high heels or short dresses for that matter.”

Apparently, that lady wasn't the only one who believed feminism and nailpolish to be mutually exclusive. I keep running into people who are telling me with a mix of surprise and shock that they never thought I'd be a feminist. “But you're not lesbian!” I've been told. “And you're wearing a bra!” Yes ladies and gentlemen, this may come as quite a shock, but we come in all shapes and forms these days. Unfortunately, the stereotype of the angry ugly man-hating feminist is still very much alive. And somehow, as soon as stereotypes take over, anything you say can and will be used against you. Even if you don't say a word.

“But why bother?” some people tell me. “Never mind what people say!” Well, I do mind. Not necessarily because I take offense (frankly, stereotypical thinking can be quite amusing at times), but because stereotypes tend to lead to tunnel vision, poor judgment.. or worse.

Speaking about stereotypes, a Senior Vice President of a multinational company based in the US once told me about the first time she was using the corporate jet. Upon arrival at the airport, she was welcomed by the pilot and cabin staff. “You can change into your uniform back there”, they said. They thought the attractive African-American woman who arrived at the gate was their new flight attendant. I asked her how that made her feel. “Sad”, she replied. “But it was also quite insightful. I've started using this example in board meetings whenever we discuss diversity and inclusion. I was taken for granted and put in a box. Let's make sure our employees don't have to go through the same experience.”

Take the point of view of a Chinese, Brazilian or Nigerian. Now look at a European. What do you see?

"Europe? Paradise! But the funny thing is: Europeans don't seem to realise they're in paradise. They seem to think they are in some sort of crisis, economically, culturally, politically. So they build all these high walls around their continent and think that will keep them safe. Laws, rules and regulations, that's how they solve things. They think they can control it all. That they are still the centre of the universe, like they used to be. But look at my country, Brasil. Or India, or China, or Angola. Look at the development these new countries are going through. Do you see them building high walls around their countries?

Really, Europeans should open their eyes to the talent they are wasting. Lots of my friends left Brasil to find a job in Europe. Saved money for years, to buy their ticket. Good people, decent motivated hard-working young people, who went to school and could achieve a lot, if you would give them a chance. But what do they end up doing in Europe? Cleaning, contruction, lousy jobs that Europeans don't want.

Funny people, those Europeans. I sometimes feel sorry for them. They have it all: education, equality, democracy, access to information, opportunities to travel without visa, trains that run according to schedule. But do they appreciate what they have? Do they really enjoy their lives? No they don't! They complain about everything. About the Euro, about Greece, about the latest tax raise, about the weather, about the line in front of the Apple store. Who would want to wait in line for hours just to buy a new phone anyway? You Europeans are so rich, but don't seem to notice it. You take everything for granted: electricity, running water, even unemployment benefits. And at the same time, I find Europe very poor. All people listen to is American music, all people eat is McDonald's. Do you call that food? And there seems to be no real sense of community in Europe. People don't even know their neighbours. Families only meet for Christmas. Do you think we would put our parents in a facility once they get too old to look after themselves? We'd be the talk of the town!”