Cultivating prejudice and stereotyping: how human rights become negotiable.

The cultural erasure of Uighurs and other ethnic minorities in China and why the world isn’t watching.

“For the most part, we do not first see and then define, we define first and then see. In the great blooming, buzzing confusion of the outer world, we pick out what our culture has already defined for us, and we tend to perceive that which we have picked out in the form stereotyped for us by our culture”

Walter Lipmann quoted on p.33 of Biased. Uncovering the Hidden Prejudices That Shape Our Lives, by Jennifer L. Eberhardt.


Walter Lipmann was a journalist- and very much a bigot by today’s standards- who first introduced the term stereotypes in 1922, of which he wrote in his book, Public Opinion. Plato had touched upon the notion himself in his Dialogues, when he explored the extent to which one’s perceptions of themselves and their surroundings matched their objective reality.

Lipmann struck closer to home, though- home being a set of affairs in which we seem to still be stuck at the moment, and have been for some time now. He described stereotypes as “the pictures in our heads”, an ensemble of subjective perceptions we have of the world we live in and its people, that we use to make sense of our environment and help us categorize people and events.

These ideas that we concoct ourselves or inherit from our socio-cultural background can often be far removed from objective reality; yet, they often come to replace it, and even dictate how we see the world around us or make sense of it. It is these false perceptions, then, that we spread, often unchecked, in the age of he internet, much like the typesetting process that the word stereotype is derived from.

Lipmann started looking into stereotypes out of his fear that Americans could make irrational and foolish political choices if their own preconceived ideas kept them from seeing and understanding information that did not fall in line with their pre-existing beliefs.

This, then, was reflected in the public opinion as well as in the news coverage, which alarmed Lipmann at the time, as he noticed how content was deemed important by journalists and publications as long as it fit their own stereotypical views of society.

This was the 1920s. It seems we’ve been roaring since.

Nowadays, social scientists call that confirmation bias: our tendency to search for information that confirms our pre-existing beliefs and using it to reinforce them. Thinking outside the categories that we have set out for ourselves is challenging, so we stick to what we know, and find the repetition of it to be factual and correct, even when clear evidence would point otherwise.

As such, once we create theories for how the world works, we become less and less critical of them- even if that were to become harmful to us or to those around us. What we believe in could be proven objectively incorrect by indisputable facts and figures, and we would still not have the ears to listen and the eyes to see it.

Is it any wonder then that so many people fall prey to fake news that seem to confirm their pre-existing beliefs about society? Is it a mystery, still, that many may act upon misleading information in good faith, while completely oblivious of their own bias, and end up condoning all manner of human rights violations in the process? How surprising is it that all of this is the result of us routinely rejecting any fact that is inconvenient or does not fall in line with what we already believe in? In other words, everything outside of our bubble? The relationship between what we do and why makes perfect sense, but you would often need a social scientist like Dr. Eberhardt to open your eyes to it- that is, if you let her.

Even then, it seems that it really doesn’t matter if you become aware of the notions of stereotypes and bias and how they are at play in your daily life- you are still prone to react to your unconscious internalization of them at every step. Overcoming that is an ongoing battle of self-awareness, coupled with a conscious and continuous exposure to a range of cultures other than your own that creates the context in which you can be open to different views and realities, while understanding and accepting your own limitations regarding bias and finding ways to tackle them.

Ironically, Lipmann himself seems to have understood bias and prejudice quite well, yet he still did not preoccupy himself with weeding it out from to his own thinking or actions, particularly regarding Black families, Japanese Americans and Jewish immigrants at the time. He preached a lot, never practiced.

What he did, though, was to recognize people’s need to simplify the world around them by breaking it into segments of us and them- a practice that removes all manner of subtlety, prevents people from seeing the world clearly and in detail, but makes it more ‘economical’ and less ‘exhausting’ for us to go about our ways. It’s hardly any wonder, then, that we are evolutionary prone to it.

Stereotypes allow us to rely on the illusion that the world we live in is ordered and consistent with our beliefs and how we want it to be. They create a place of comfort -albeit not an objective, real one-, and a place we have come to inhabit.

It is because of that comfort that we do not question them; we receive our stereotypical thinking as an integral part of our upbringing. Then, we stand by it and defend it as a collection of traditional values; we pass these along to the younger generations and we spread them like wildfire with the aid of the internet.

Unaware of what we’re giving course to, we allow stereotypes to shape a distorted and often harmful vision of society, which further validates our preconceived beliefs and pushes us much further from objectivity that we would knowingly be comfortable with- but we rarely, if ever, give that a second thought. As Lipmann goes on to say, stereotypes are “the core of our personal tradition, the defenses of our positions in society”- they become one with us.

Lipmann did us all a favor by beginning to raise awareness of stereotypes and bias amongst individuals as well as within the media, which has always been tasked with presenting a significant chunk of the world as we know it. Awareness, we now know, is a pre-condition to taking meaningful action in any direction, but is unfortunately not of much consequence on its own.

To begin to move beyond it, though, we should first acknowledge that stereotypes don’t exist in a vacuum, but are a product of economic, political and social forces that rely on them to protect the status quo, and are, in turn, culturally specific, as Dr. Eberhardt argues- which makes the shift from reading about them to monitoring them and acting outside of them one that is very difficult to make.

As terrible as this may sound, for many, living alongside an oppressed minority population is an all-round win- and they aren’t interested in going out of their way to change it.

The ways in which the circumstances that foster prejudice arise, how it is allowed to unfold in our respective societies, how it can be used for political gain and how it can lead to the passive endorsement of human rights violations can be observed in the international community’s response to the tragedy that has been unfolding amongst Uighur and other ethnic minorities in China, since the mid-1990s.

What has been deemed as the cultural erasure of Uighurs, coupled with the lack of meaningful response from the international community that it received, proves that in the presence of widespread prejudice and stereotyping, human rights become negotiable.

This could arise out of our natural predisposition towards categorization, which is detectable at neural level, and it is responsible for the ease with which we detect and respond to what we perceive as familiar and belonging to our own group (and, in turn, defend), while failing to pay attention and remember information pertaining to out-of-group people or situations. The latter, Dr. Eberhardt argues, “are not processed as deeply or attended to as carefully. We reserve our precious cognitive resources for those who are ‘like us’.”

Our natural predisposition towards categorization is what keeps us focused and often safe, but it could also be intentionally cultivated by social and political groups, to the detriment of minority groups worldwide. In Xinjiang, as multiple reports from journalists, human rights groups and the U.N. have been consistently indicating, it is becoming clear that the process of minority assimilation is being used by the Chinese government as a front for cultural erasure- and the world is hardly watching.

It is worth acknowledging that in the case of China, the role of stereotypes, prejudice and bias in garnering support from the majority population against the Uighur minority could only be a drop in an ocean of systematic oppression and suppression of freedom of speech and countless others human rights abuses that would lead many Han Chinese to dance to their government’s tune.

However, if records of systemic racism and oppression of African-Americans in the United States and of Roma in Eastern Europe-to name only two- were to give us anything to extrapolate from, is that people have an incredibly easy time to turn against a minority population if they are part of the majority themselves and enjoy all the benefits that their status has to offer.

Historically, it has become quite clear that people can actively back up policies and actions that severely harm others on the basis of their race, ethnicity or religion, if they come to see that as a way to safeguard themselves from this sort of treatment, while validating, keeping or augmenting their perceived privilege in the process. As terrible as this may sound, for many, living alongside an oppressed minority population is an all-round win- and they aren’t interested in going out of their way to change it.

In the presence of widespread prejudice and stereotyping, human rights become negotiable.

It should also be noted that the conscious and unconscious prejudice of news providers has played a significant role in keeping the rest of the world from paying attention and registering the abuse of Uighurs as a severe human rights violation with international ramifications.

If it isn’t deemed headline material, people don’t read about it, the algorithm doesn’t pick it up and it’s all but gone in a sea of information already littered with snippets of a perceived reality that they’re comfortable with and can easily understand- mainly because they’ve  helped replicate it by tapping on it over and over again until it makes up everything they consume.

Added to that, if we factor in the potential bias of journalists and editors who might, as a result, report the Uighur case too simplistically, then it becomes even clearer how the accounts of Chinese minorities’ internment and exploitation have been kept off the front page and out of the spotlight. But this matters to all of us, and we need to know, especially as it’s hardly recent news: one Amnesty International report published in April 1999 documents gross violations of human rights in Xinjiang Uighur autonomous region throughout the mid-1990s.

Uighurs are a mostly Muslim ethnic minority, numbering about 11 million, who live in Xinjiang, a region in north-western China that is both rich in resources and carries strategic importance. As Mao Tse-tung wrote,

“We say China is a country vast in territory, rich in resources and large in population; as a matter of fact, it is the Han nationality whose population is large and the minority nationalities whose territory is vast and whose resources are rich…”

Selected Works of Mao Tse-tung, Vol.
V, Beijing, Foreign Language Press, 1977, pp.295-296.

Uighurs speak their own language and are ethnically and culturally different from the majority population in China, which comprises over 90% Han Chinese. Unfortunately, over the years, the relationship between Uighurs and the Beijing government has been described as ‘uncomfortable’ at best, with journalistic accounts describing Xinjiang as China’s most repressed state.

Over time, religious differences have sparked bigoted views amongst the Han Chinese, who can easily identify Uighurs by their different facial features and attire, and make no effort to conceal their prejudice towards them, often labeling them as thieves and robbers.

This resentment has been exacerbated by the Chinese government, who has added to the discrimination of Uighurs in various ways, including through state-orchestrated Han migration, as it routinely encouraged Han Chinese to relocate to Xinjiang, while giving them priority over Uighurs in securing employment.

Using the 2009 riots that resulted in the death of 140 Han Chinese, authorities in Beijing went on to portray the tensions between Uighurs and the majority population as religious terrorism, which aimed to legitimize further Uighur abuse by labeling all members of this ethnic minority, particularly those fighting for an independent state, as potential terrorists.

Since then, Xinjiang has become one of the most heavily policed regions in the world, using a high number of CCTV cameras to track the daily movement of Uighur citizens.

Sophie Richardson, the China Director for Human Rights Watch reported in an interview for the BBC that routine activities such as increased socializing with neighbours, fueling up someone else’s car or leaving your house through the back door as opposed to the front door are the types of behaviors that would indicate religious extremism amongst Uighurs. This information is then fed into a predictive policing system, which flags names of individuals considered suspicious, most of whom are then forcibly detained and sent to re-education camps.

Chinese officials explain their position as a means to prevent crime by tracking down the behaviors that might be associated with it before it is committed, then detaining the individuals who exhibit these. As a result, residents of Xinjiang have been arrested and detained in camps without having committed any crime- unless you count fasting, growing a beard, the frequency with which you pray or go to the mosque, applying for a passport, visiting your family often, owning ‘many books’ or not paying your phone bill and getting disconnected as proof of that.

This information added to an Integrated Joint Operations Platform, which collects data on individuals from different sources (mainly CCTV cameras, WiFi sniffers and vehicle checkpoints) and has been used by the Xinjiang Bureau of Public Security since 2016. Police officers and local Party officials also make routine house visits to families that are deemed politically untrustworthy to collect data on their ‘ideological situation’.

During these inspections, some individuals who ‘should be taken’ are rounded up by the police and taken into custody. Then, they are either detained and/or sent to political education centers.

As a result, a U.N. panel has declared that Xinjiang has become similar to a massive detention camp, where an estimated of at least one million Muslim people -mostly Uighurs, but also Kazakhs and other ethnic minorities- have been forcibly brought to, detained and indoctrinated by the Chinese regime.

Satellite imagery, along with witness accounts and leaked Communist Party documents have pointed to the camp being perhaps the largest imprisonment of people, detained on grounds of their religion, since the Holocaust. As reports increasingly show, Uighurs have become an ethnic group in China that is systematically monitored and detained, in an attempt to politically indoctrinate them, which could exterminate them and their culture.

The Chinese government has tried to keep this story from getting out and denied the existence of the detention camps, but later dubbed them vocational training facilities, where they re-educate detainees. The Communist Party and the Chinese government, then, have done nothing more than provide Uighurs with the right kind of free education. 

However, it has been reported that the alleged Uighur students are kept from contacting anyone outside the camps, and that measures had been taken within the camps to prevent them from escaping- which is not exactly the way a state school for adults would operate.

In fact, former detainees have described the appalling abuse they regularly endured, while other reports pointed to the sterilization of hundreds of thousands of Uighur women, putting them on forced birth control and performing forced abortions, especially when detained in the camps. As experts point out, these measures have led to a demographic genocide in Xianjiang, especially as they are done in tandem with the Chinese government’s encouragement of the Han majority population to have more children.

Increasing evidence also points to the Western world playing a significant part in the abuse of Uighurs and Chinese ethnic minorities, who are routinely and unwillingly brought to factories across China by the tens of thousands, in a system of mass labor transfers across the country, to make face masks in textile companies to meet the demand generated by the coronavirus pandemic, as The New York Times reports.

Uighur labor is used in various factories to produce personal protective equipment, and their shipments have been tracked to the U.S. and other world regions. What is more, the Australian Strategic Policy Institute found direct ties between Uighur forced labor and eighty-three foreign and Chinese companies benefiting from Uighur workers- Nike, Volkswagen, BMW, Samsung and Apple being just a few prominent names that stand out. Added to that, building the Uighur camps has also been -somewhat unsurprisingly- supported by Donald Trump, who according to his former adviser, called it ‘exactly the right thing to do’ in a conversation with China’s president, Xi Jinping.

In anticipation of governments around the world taking a stance against the abusive treatment of Uighurs, regardless of the economic consequences that may arise, or the United Nations investigating the matter, it would help if we also checked our own purchasing habits and be more mindful of what unlawful and damaging practices we are pouring our hard-earned money into. Chances are we may be contributing to this without knowing.

Added to that, while we may be far-removed from the reality of Uighurs and have our own socio-political and economic crosses to bear, cultivating our awareness of our own prejudice, stereotypes and categorization, and how we allow these to be at work in our daily lives could well be the pre-conditions to meaningful action as well- because it’s these internal mechanisms that may first determine what we pay attention to and why we haven’t read of this yet or done something about it.

This is no small feat, but a lot of what we can do right now, by actively observing the workings of our own minds, by deciding from whom we buy and what we bring into our own homes, and by becoming more mindful of what we consume off of our phone screens, can help.