Christmas is just around the corner, a time that makes us think of huge dinners and beautifully wrapped presents. But most will agree that it is the joy of reuniting with friends and family - rather than the gifts - that makes Christmas a true cause for celebration.
Behind all the wreaths and tinsel is the Christmas spirit of charity and love. We hand out presents and whisper kind words because we love these people. Love means we accept and respect them despite their not-so-lovely quirks. In the presence of our loved ones, we feel appreciated for being the unique person that we are. This helps us to maintain our self-esteem.
What is stigma?
While we enjoy the warmth of love and acceptance at Christmas, let's take a moment to consider the other extreme: stigma.
Stigma is the opposite of acceptance. Erving Goffman, one of the most influential sociologists of the 20th century, defines stigma as "the phenomenon whereby an individual with an attribute which is deeply discredited by his or her society is rejected as a result of the attribute". These attributes could be a person's gender, race, or disability. They are typically important parts of a person's identity.
It's easy for minorities to get the worst of this because they are often financially and socially vulnerable to begin with.
Reduced to a label
The basic problem with stigma is that it reduces a person to a label.
Stigma is the product of the discrimination and prejudice that society holds against certain people. Stereotypes allow us to forget that their personhood is more important than whatever label society has placed on them.
Once we stop seeing people who are "different" as our equals - fellow human beings who experience the same joys and sorrows as we do - we become more ready to reject them, and accept their mistreatment.
Stigma in Hong Kong
It is a sad fact that stigma remains a fairly visible problem in Hong Kong. Even though our city is becoming more diverse, it is not more accepting of our minorities.
One daily example would be new immigrants from the mainland. They face discrimination and have been insulted. An adolescent who has recently arrived in Hong Kong from the mainland may feel like an outcast because their community has been portrayed so negatively in the media.
A barrier to success
Stigma is especially relevant to youth development for one important reason: it contributes to lower self-esteem which, in turn, blocks our personal growth and limits our academic achievements.
If they are constantly bombarded by negative messages about their identity, youngsters may give in to internal stigma. This is when they devalue themselves because they are so used to being treated negatively. Then they lose confidence in their ability to succeed.
As American businessman Henry Ford once famously said: "Whether you think you can, or think you can't, you're probably right." When we stop believing in our potential to succeed, we are setting up roadblocks on our road to success.
Stigma doesn't only affect minorities. Stigma is the extreme form of social rejection for anyone who is slightly different. Social rejection happens around us every day, sometimes in the form of actions, and other times, in the form of words. But depending on a person's sense of self-worth, a mean remark may be very painful, so don't underestimate the impact of your words.
Project Resonance 2015
Next summer, the Hong Kong Outstanding Students' Association will organise Project Resonance 2015, which will focus on minorities.
We invite all students from Form Three to Form Five to join us in learning about Hong Kong's minorities and educating ourselves and others about the importance of acceptance and respect for all. This will help fight the problem of stigma in the classroom, and beyond.
A Christmas challenge
In the coming holiday, we challenge you to set aside your judgments and appreciate the people you meet, whatever their strange habits or unusual beliefs. Perhaps you have a friend who acts strangely at times, but this doesn't mean the person should be made an outcast for their behaviour. Christmas is a time for acceptance and inclusion, so let's have a change of heart and practise the art of empathy in this festive season!