The linguistic pluralism and ethnic diversity of Nigeria have constantly birthed multifarious dimensions of stereotyping in the country. Nigeria is made up of culturally different and politically autonomous nations that were lumped together for political purposes under the colonial era. The distinctness of the peoples’ ways of life has always played out in their attempt at collective co-existence, thereby making manifest the us-them dichotomies despite the many efforts towards actualising national unity in Nigeria. One of the ways diversity has always played out within the united project called Nigeria is stereotyping. This article will discuss the concept of stereotype, its features and types, and some of the ways it plays out in Nigeria.
The term “stereotype” comes from two Greek words: “stereos” which means “hard, solid, rigid” and “typos” which mean “solid form, characteristic imprint”. The printer, Firmin Didiot, used this expression in 1798 to describe printing with fixed letters. Lippman, an American journalist and political scientist who first used the term as a single word in 1922 describes stereotypes as pictures in our heads. They are (mis)conceptions often commonly held by people in direct yet unempirical forms which greatly inform, shape and affect their collective existence. Adetunji (2013) describes stereotypes as pragmatic phenomena which are employed to position the self and the other in socially meaningful manner. Mindiola et al. (2002:36) note that stereotypes can be positive or negative impressions about people or groups.
Furthermore, these impressions can vary significantly in their accuracy. This last definition shows that stereotypes are not necessarily negative. McGarty et al. (2002:4) share this view and add that stereotypes can be helpful in understanding different groups, but can also lead to misunderstanding of groups and their characteristics. Allport (1954) believes that a stereotype is an exaggerated belief asserted with a category whether it is favourable or unfavourable.
The process of stereotyping, therefore, appears as a tendency to attribute generalised and simplified characters to groups of peoples in the verbal levels. Once you assume that a group of people are this way because a number of persons are that way, then you are engaging in stereotyping. Stereotyping shares features with the fallacy of overgeneralisation. Psychologists describe overgeneralisation as a cognitive error where one makes a sweeping conclusion from a single incident. Discussing how a stereotype plays out, Lippman further says that “we do not first see and then define, we first define and then see. In the great blooming and budging confusion of the outer world, we pick out what our culture has already defined for us.”
From many features of stereotypes, this piece will present ten common ones important for this discussion:
1. Stereotypes are basically fixed mental pictures in one’s head.
2. Stereotypes may have some stimulus value, but they are unscientific generalizations.
3. Stereotypes are mostly false elements.
4. Stereotypes are overgeneralized ideas.
5. Stereotypes are shared by the group.
6. They are mostly negative in nature.
7. Stereotypes originate and grow like attitudes, prejudices and other social concepts.
8. Stereotypes are quite rigid and not easily amenable to change.
9. Stereotypes emerge from ingroup-outgroup relationships and personal and group conflicts into which a good deal of fantasy is attached.
10. Stereotypes help in solving current problems and adjust with the present situation in a short time by the already formed ready-made idea.
There are different kinds of stereotypes, and I shall briefly mention them in addition to the ethnic stereotype. For starters, the gender stereotype involves the creation of assumptions about what a man or woman can/cannot do or should/should not do. Many social and academic studies have investigated gender stereotypes across cultures. Not only that, terms such as patriarchy and hegemony have been used to discuss the gender stereotype. Bamgbose and Ladele (2023) also mention female complicity as another dimension to gender stereotypes. Social-class stereotypes are concerned with stratifications among people based on their influence and affluence. Discussions around working-class people being regarded by the wealthier classes as dirty, uneducated, and violent, and wealthy people being considered pompous, arrogant, and uncaring are debates around social-class stereotypes. In recent times, there is disability stereotype. People with disabilities were long excluded from social participation. For example, someone with speaking difficulties or whose hands are missing might be considered unable to do a job that, in reality, they are perfectly capable of executing. Finally, there is the ethnic stereotype. An ethnic stereotype, racial stereotype or cultural stereotype involves part of a system of beliefs about typical characteristics of members of a given ethnic group, their status, as well as their societal and cultural norms.
In Nigeria, for instance, the Yoruba, Hausa and Igbo people have been stereotyped accordingly. While the Yoruba are typified as people with a high penchant for partying, the Igbo are constructed as lovers of money, business and people who engage in exorbitant wedding culture while the Hausa are sometimes depicted as less intelligent people. Martina Thiele stated that, in modern society, the form by which most stereotypes are transmitted is through the media—television, radio, movies, newspapers, books, leaflets, stickers and, since the 1990s, online media.
In rounding off, this article submits that Nigerians should shun stereotypes that are capable of causing social unrest and fanning enmity. We, as such, must consider and make our linguistic choices carefully when labelling others, especially in relation to their ethnic affiliation in order to avoid inter-ethnic rivalry.