Let’s talk about stigma. To define stigma, it is ‘a mark of disgrace associated with a particular circumstance, quality, or person.’ For something to be a stigma, we would have to associate a person with a negative attribute because of a mental/physical/emotional quality that they have.
Some examples of stigma are:
- A person experiencing a mental illness → the stigma can imply they are crazy.
- A person with a physical disability → the stigma can imply they are incapable.
- A person with a higher than average weight → the stigma can imply they are unhealthy.
There are stigmas attached to almost everything - physical appearance, gender, sexual orientation, ability…and the list goes on. Stigma feeds into bias.
Stigma vs. Bias
Stigma is the social stereotype and misconception about people with a certain attribute, while bias is the actual negative attitude and belief imparted on people with a certain attribute.
For example, I found out that Aristotle helped coin the phrase “deaf and dumb”. He felt that Deaf people were not capable of being taught education, and also cannot understand reasoned thinking. How rude of him.
The stigma here is that deaf people are not intelligent. The bias would be folks treating deaf people as if they did not have a measure of intelligence because that is what they believe.
All that is to say is that stigma and the bias that comes from it can create a sense of shame around an attribute, and this can carry on into how we view and interact with that attribute. Naturally, human beings are subject to stigma and bias because it all depends on the interactions we have in our day to day, and the lessons we are taught from other people who have passed along their own biased views on a certain attribute.
I admit that I’ve been biased before, and have gotten that bias proven wrong - something which I felt immensely guilty over. I’ve even been biased towards my own hearing loss! I used to think that people with hearing loss can’t sing well because they can’t properly hear the notes. I was proven wrong - people with hearing loss can sing well, and that I’m just naturally awful at it (and that’s ok!).
Letting Go of Perceived Imperfections
Bias is natural, but that doesn’t mean it needs to be a fixed state of mind. As humans, our mindset has the ability to be fluid. As we evolve and grow, and take on new experiences, our mindset shifts from year to year, day to day, hour to hour.
Eventually, people realized that Aristotle’s assumption that people who are deaf are considered dumb…was…well…dumb. Aristotle has a lot of thought provoking theories that ring true, but the “deaf and dumb” philosophy was not one of them.
The thing with stigmas and biases is that they evolve alongside the humans that create them. Learned human experiences and journeys are an integral step to smashing stigmas. People realized that deaf individuals were not “dumb” but instead lacked the accessible means to learn how to communicate - and once that was discovered, that bias that deaf people were “dumb” ended up disappearing.
Where there is stigma, there is shame - especially felt by the folks that are subject to the stigma. Let’s pause for a moment here. What kind of stigmas and biases do you face? What is your feeling around that stigma and bias? If there is shame or embarrassment associated with it, what are some of the steps that you can take to let go of those feelings? What can we do to break from the criticisms of the world, and ultimately gain a more inclusive and equitable mindset?
These are all questions that we can ask ourselves, because while stigmas will always be around, there is more benefit to being aware of those stigmas and their impact rather than just mindlessly believing them.
Sometimes, the best way to identify stigmas is to learn from not only your current experiences, but also from the past - what judgments has history passed that you can take away and deconstruct?