Professor Robert E. Kelly, of Pusan National University in South Korea, was involved in a live interview with BBC News via video link, from an office-cum-bedroom. Midway through his response to a question a door opened in the background and a small child marched gaily into the room, followed shortly by a baby in a walker. Seconds later a woman dashed into the room, crouching and panicked, grabbed both the toddler and the baby, and reversed out of the room with them, lurching back into the room for a second to close the door. During the whole incident the Professor had his eyes closed and apologised whilst the BBC interviewer attempted to stifle his laughter.

The next day the video went viral, and was reported both through social media [1] and the mainstream news [2] [3], as the funniest video people had seen in a long time. Much of the commentary touched on the Professor’s embarrassment, but also on the fact that this woman, referred to widely as the nanny, must be embarrassed and worried about her job. The woman is Asian, the professor is Caucasian. She is not Prof Kelly’s nanny though, she is Jung-a Kim, his wife.

The backlash at the presumption that Ms Jung was a nanny came almost immediately, and escalated over the following day, with social [4] and mainstream media [5] [6] again getting involved. Calls of stereotyping flowed quickly into accusations of racism, equating one directly with the other, and with the huge number of commenters and commentators declaring stereotyping to be wrong at any and every level.

It is however incorrect to call stereotyping wrong. It is an evolutionary psychological development, and one that serves us well in many circumstances, and for much of the time. By relating new circumstances to previous familiar circumstances, and thereafter bringing our pre-existing knowledge to bear on the new circumstance, we reduce learning time, avoid confusion and are able to move more confidently through life. Were we to approach every situation, or meeting, completely anew, our ability to valuably interact, make effective decisions and create benefits for ourselves and others would be considerably hampered.

Schemas, which manifest as pre-learned processes for how to handle a seemingly familiar situation, are the launchpad for moving our experiences forward and, in many cases, then evolving our knowledge and refining, or even completely changing that schema. They allow us to progress and act, without undue encumbrance, predicting events and outcomes for us to move effectively forward. Although, this is not always the case.

In the example of Prof Kelly and Ms Jung, particularly in the case of the Western media, a lack of familiarity with mixed race couples, compared with broad knowledge of non-whites working as nannies and maids for white families, created the context by which a stereotype was recalled, applied and perpetuated, in this case incorrectly.

The media portrayal of non-white nannies is surely guilty also, of amplifying this stereotype, by disproportionately showing home-helps as non-white. In this way our store of stereotypes, fed by news and social media, and popular entertainments, have become less reliable, as they are no longer based solely on our own experiences, but are swayed by information fed to us. Consequently the incorrect assumption by many of Ms Jung’s status in the household, based on her race and that of Prof Kelly’s, has been equated to racism.

Racism and Stereotyping, whilst connected, are not the same thing however, and it is not racist to make a judgement based on your sincerely believed experiences. It is however incorrect to perpetuate a stereotype in light of new information and new experiences, and to continue to label a situation, or a person, based on a single or limited identifiers. Stereotypes therefore, whilst useful, are not infallible, and can cause distress or harm if unquestioningly followed and not challenged by new information and outcomes.


Sources: Twitter Trending Search: The Independent: The Hill: Twitter Trending Search: LA Times: BBC News: