People are complex, with even more complex stories

There is a blurry line between generalisations and stereotypes.

On the Everyday Sociology blog American sociologist Doctor Sally Raskoff says, “Stereotypes tend to be more negative than generalisations. Also, they are typically inflexible and resistant to new information. They can, and often do, lead to prejudice and intentional or unintentional discrimination,”

I think generalisations give us a lens to identify people based on ethnicity, race, culture or religion. This allows us to act appropriately with different types of people according to whatever beliefs or systems they subscribe to.

However, when we adopt rigid perceptions of people and only identify them with those perceptions, it becomes a stereotype, and stereotypes can distort the view ahead and block what’s on the sides.

I read a story in The Star about two sisters Emmarangia and Zula Adaama who spent five days in a crammed Johannesburg prison cell after being wrongfully arrested in the heat of the police raids on counterfeit goods sellers two weeks ago. Police arrested the sisters while they were having breakfast in a Johannesburg CBD restaurant, assuming the biracial South African women to be Ethiopian, and “illegal foreigners” because they didn’t have their IDs at hand.

Ultimately, those women were stripped of everything and were only seen for their skin which was associated with foreignness. As we know, foreignness is associated with illegality.

As a Zimbabwean, I often come across situations where I am put on the spot for the actions of “my people” which at times is neither bad nor offensive. “Those people” is not an inherently bad collective term as we all, at various levels, belong to similar clusters which group us based on commonalities or generalisations.

In many instances, I have escaped being stereotyped into “foreigner” boxes, particularly from people uneducated about the widespread Nguni people on the African content. My name and ability to speak isiZulu has afforded me safety in a late-night taxi ride from Hatfield to the Pretoria bus station as the only passenger of a thrilling ride.

Somewhere, somehow, the driver got provoked by a woman who wanted to cross the street when the traffic light was amber for her, whereas he wanted to speed off when it was red for him. Convinced she was Nigerian by her accent, he went off to me, an assumed compatriot, about how “those people” ruin everything.

I could only mumble, afraid a slip of the tongue would expose my Northern Ndebele accent. He was happy to dump his rage on me as I silently sat next to him. I was even more thankful when the trip ended.

On another occasion, in a first-year English class, I struck up small talk with a woman I sat next to in the auditorium, waiting for the lecture to commence. When I mentioned that I was Zimbabwean, she said, “It must be crazy hot out there because wow, you guys are so dark!”.


Firstly, Zimbabwe is not so far north that that there is a significant difference in climate between it and South Africa. Her general encounter with “x” number of dark-skinned Zimbabweans made her equate the rest of the 15 million-strong population to having the same skin tone. While there is obviously nothing wrong with being dark-skinned (even though there was an undertone to her statement suggesting there is) she needlessly and inaccurately stereotyped a varied group of people.

In her TED Talk ‘The Danger of a Single Story’, author Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie highlights her own experiences of being boxed by Western stereotypes of Africa being poor and sickly.

“All of these stories make me who I am. But to insist on only these negative stories is to flatten my experience, and to overlook the many other stories that formed me,” she said.

The phrase “those people”, as used by that Pretoria taxi driver, is inflammatory when it not only isolates but flattens a person and their experiences.

As people, we have various commonalities among each other but even then, we can be split up into different subgroups. Every part of us, be it our looks, eccentric style or quirky name, has its own story.

While we may pull ourselves or others together based on what we have in common, we need to be careful not to pull each other apart and in the process deflate the rich bodies of life which we have.

FEATURED IMAGE: Ntombi Mkandhla. Photo: Wits Vuvuzela