What “Unity in Diversity” Means in Atambua, a Story of Tackling Stereotypes

– By Katy Rennenkampf –

This semester, ten ETAs are working on a project called “Unity in Diversity: Collected Student Stories.” The project was inspired by the “Humans of New York” artist Brandon Stanton, and features stories and photos from students across Indonesia; the project’s name is derived from Indonesia’s national motto, Bhinneka Tunggal Ika, which translates to “Unity in Diversity.” We hope that this project will help Indonesian students connect with one another, connect Indonesian students with native English speakers in other countries, enable people in other countries get a deeper and more nuanced perspective of Indonesia, and encourage our students to embrace their diversity, find pride in their identities and in themselves, and combat stereotypes.

If you would like to join this project and receive daily updates and stories from Indonesian students, please “Like” and follow our Facebook page, here.

I am lucky to have an amazing group of students who come to English Club twice a week. Even if their English skills are not particularly advanced, they are diligent, hilarious, and always interested in learning more. English Club is the highlight of every week for me, and an opportunity to engage in larger, cultural dialogues with students. Our recent activities have included a “Snow Day,” a Valentine’s Day party, a “slang in songs” listening/singing session, and my personal favorite, a session about diversity and stereotypes. Honestly, it wasn’t a day filled with a lot of English, as our discussions faded into being mostly in Indonesian, but it was a day full of lessons learned by my students and by me—lessons about people, perspectives, and life.

To start, I asked my students to describe “America” and “Americans.” We made a list, which included New York City, work hard, on time, big country, seasons, clean, caring, good places to visit, beaches deserts mountains Texas, many religions, many cultures, hot dogs pizza hamburgers candy, progressive mindset, and good style/fashion. Someone said “fewer people with black hair,” so I asked “What do Americans look like?” Students answered pointy nose, blue/green eyes, tall, and white skin.

I looked at the list and at my students and told them, “It’s OK to say negative things. I promise I won’t get angry.” They looked at each other, still hesitant, and I pressed “No, really. Don’t be shy! What are some bad things about America/Americans?” In a flurry they responded that we watch/make porn, have sex before marriage, drink alcohol/party, and wear inappropriate/sexy clothes.

I love doing this exercise with students. I love hearing about the America that is shown to the rest of the world through movies and TV shows and comparing it with the one I know, considering what’s true and what isn’t, wondering what’s easier to see from the inside and what’s easier to see from the outside.

“OK,” I said, “Awesome! Thank you. That was really interesting. We’ll come back to this later. But for now, let’s talk about identity.” Together, we defined and translated various words related to identity such as nationality, race, ethnicity, gender, language, religion, socioeconomic status, and sexual orientation. We gave examples and discussed how these things are similar or different in Indonesia and in America. For example, students told me that both countries have many races and ethnicities, but Indonesia has more languages, while America has more religions and doesn’t have poor people. Both countries have gay people, but in Indonesia they don’t talk about it because it’s a secret.

Next we define the word “stereotype.” I asked my students what a stereotype is, and if they are always true. I gave every student a paper with a statement on it and asked everyone to read their statement and then come to the board and classify it as a “Stereotype” or “Not a stereotype.”

The statements included

  • Girls like the color pink.
  • Boys are good at sports.
  • Muslims are terrorists.
  • People from cities are smarter than people from villages.
  • Ethnic Chinese people are frugal.
  • Fat people are lazy.
  • Asian kids are smart.

The initial round of board-taping went like this: katy2

Together, we read all the statements again, and I asked students, “Why is this a stereotype?” For each statement they had initially classified as a stereotype, they gave the answers quickly: “Because not all girls like the color pink,” “Because I know someone who is fat and she is a very diligent student,” and “Because that is not true!” We honed in on the distinctions, the nuances, and we all agreed—“some” is not the same as “all.” “Many” is not the same as “all.” If it’s not true for “all,” then we can’t say that it’s always true.

Moving over to the “Not a Stereotype” column was a little harder. I asked, “Why is this not a stereotype?” and followed up with “But is that really true for ALL?” Are ALL boys good at sports? Do ALL boys even like sports? Do you think EVERY SINGLE student in China is diligent and smart? You are from the village, do you think you’re not smart? We spent a long time discussing the statement about ethnic Chinese Indonesians, which I‘m guessing is because the ethnic Chinese population in Atambua is very small and the stereotypes about ethnic Chinese people in Indonesia are very pervasive.

Finally, after about fifteen minutes of discussion and questions, our board looked like this:


“So,” I continued, “Are there stereotypes in Indonesia?” Yes! My students told me. I asked them “Can you think of examples?” We looped back to some that we’d already talked about, like the prevalence of gender roles and ideas about various ethnic groups. My students also said “religion.” I inquired what they meant by “religion” and they explained that sometimes people from different religions don’t mix very much, so that if you’re Muslim you tend to be friends with Muslims and if you’re Christian you tend to be friends with Christians.

I totally agree with this, and I’ve observed it in my previous site Bogor and to an extent in Atambua. I shared some stories from Bogor, and told my students how I can see that this is true, and how in most of my classes in Atambua there are only two or three girls wearing jilbabs and they usually sit together. There is a little giggling, but they said “Yes! That’s right!” I countered, “But, in English Club, you’re all different religions and you’re friends…. ?” To which they immediately responded “YES MISS!!” and threw their arms around one another and hugged, dark black hair contrasted against bright white jilbabs.

We came back to the village/city divide. The village example is important because my students relate to this and feel defiant about this, so I pushed a little harder. I asked them “Do you think there are stereotypes about you? Do people in Java or Kalimantan or Sumatra have stereotypes about people in NTT?”

They quickly answered “money” and explained that poor people and rich people don’t mix, and that people from eastern Indonesia have less money. People from eastern Indonesia also have darker skin, so the stereotype is that darker-skinned Indonesians are poor.

For a long time, we talked about the idea of having darker skin and of the implications of having darker skin. I asked, “Do you think that darker skin is less beautiful?” The initial response was, “NO WE ARE BEAUTIFUL!” This made me laugh, smile, and fall in love with my students all over again because they are beautiful, and I’m glad that they know they are beautiful.

So, I inquired, “Do you think maybe other people in Indonesia think darker skin is not beautiful?”

This brought us to the idea of “black sweet,” hitam manis. “If you have black skin, you are black sweet,” my students tell me. “But why,” I pressed, “why are you black ‘sweet?’ Why are you not black ‘beautiful?’” I reminded them that I think they are beautiful, that black is beautiful, and continued to question, “Why is it black sweet and white beautiful, why not say white sweet and black beautiful?”

My student Ria finally burst out, “Cantik, itu tidak cocok dengan hitam.”

Beautiful, it doesn’t “fit” with black.

This statement is humble in its simplicity and tragic in its implications. My students are surrounded by skin-whitening beauty products, make-up that is three shades too light, Indonesian models with photoshopped ivory skin, and Indonesian celebrities with Indo heritage[i]. Every Monday they recite the Pancasila [ii] that provided them their Indonesian nationality and national identity, and every day they are inundated with images that do not reflect the “Indonesian” they are.

I had originally written on the board, “Stereotypes in Indonesia” as we started making this list, but now I added two words to it: “and America.” These stereotypes, that “farm kids” are dumber, that boys prefer sports, that religions don’t mix, that socioeconomic classes don’t mix, and that “darker skin” is synonymous with “poor,” all exist in America, too. Perhaps there is some universality to our spectrums of skin color and socioeconomic status and gender.

To finish, I showed them Coca-Cola’s “It’s Beautiful” commercial. I asked them to describe what they saw in the video and the people in the video. They answered cowboy, dancer, Muslim, and African. They noticed the old cars and the Chinese characters, but did’t notice things like the two men holding hands or the yarmulkes on people’s heads.

I said that there was an important description they forgot and I drew a circle around all of their ideas, writing under it, “American.” These people are all American. Some have black skin, some have red hair, and some wear headscarves, but they are all American.

We talked a little bit about the importance of identity, of being “Indonesian,” and being “American,” and I shared stories of ETAs being told by Indonesians that “They can’t be American” because they have a “Filipina face,” they have “features like an Indian person,” or because they have “black skin,” and I asked them, “ How do you think that feels?”

It feels hurtful. It’s wrong, and it’s their identity to know, to own, and they don’t need to prove it. We talked about the fact that stereotypes in general are wrong, and hurtful, and should be changed, and my students actually cheered. “The only way to change stereotypes is to share these ideas. We can be Team No Stereotypes! If we hear someone say something that is a stereotype, we will say ‘NO! That’s not right! That’s a stereotype!’” More cheering. My heart melted.

As we were ending, a student came over and asked, “But Miss, what about original Americans?”
“Like… Native American people?”
“Mmmm ya miss, Hindians. Are they called Hindians?”
“No,” I laughed, “we say Native American or American Indian. Well, what do you think about original Americans?”
“They wear face paint and feathers!”

I opened my computer again and skipped forward to a section of the Coca-Cola video that features two Native American women. “They are Native American. Are they wearing facepaint?”
“No …..”

I closed my computer and zipped my backpack shut. “No,” I confirmed. We walked out together, turning off the lights, closing the metal gate, locking the door. “Why not?”

A few seconds slid by. I asked, “Do you think all Native Americans wear paint and feathers every day?” Another pause.

“Hmm. Miss Katy I think maybe that’s a stereotype.”

[i] “Indo” is the ethnic distinction given to Indonesians who are of mixed Dutch and Indonesian descent.

[ii] The “Pancasila” was written in 1945, and established the political and philosophical foundation of newly-independent Indonesia. The principles of the Pancasila continue to be guiding ideas for public policy, educational programs, and the larger culture of Indonesia.

About the author: Katy Rennenkampf is a second-year Fulbright English Teaching Assistant in Atambua, East Nusa Tenggara. She graduated from the University of Maryland College Park in 2013 with degrees in math, economics, and English. Katy finds wisdom in the words of Dr. Seuss and is hopelessly addicted to rujak.  

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