Stereotypes are ways of judging other people based on one or a few obvious characteristics. Often doing this can result in unfair assumptions. In order to avoid stereotyping, it is useful to understand a bit about the history, science and current situation regarding stereotypes. If you would like to learn more about all of this please read on.
A stereotype is, according to Dictionary.com:
“…a simplified and standardized conception or image invested with special meaning and held in common by members of a group”
Often stereotypes are discussed in terms of prejudice and discrimination. Because it is hard to talk in specific terms when it comes to a race, nation or gender, the tendency is to reach for generalizations. This instinct to generalize isn’t inherently bad, in fact it can be necessary in order to talk at all, however it becomes dangerous when these generalizations become unfair, negative and politicized.
Stereotypes can affect many aspects of our lives, from how we are treated in social or professional situations to the manner in which we are dealt with by law enforcement and the judicial system. It can be hard to imagine the negative impact of a stereotype about a group to which you do not belong, so it’s important to learn about them.
Stereotypes come in many forms. They can be about races, genders, national groups or other groups. They can be positive or negative. They can also be accurate or inaccurate. All of these types can be damaging because they cause people to judge others based on preconceptions rather than the individual’s own qualities.
Early research onto stereotypes focused on ideas of ingroups and outgroups. There was an assumption that ethnic stereotypes, for example, were always negative in content.
The modern psychology and sociology of stereotypes looks at two dimensions: warmth and competence. In this matrix some groups can, for example, be admired but at the same time disliked. (Fiske uses the example of Jewish people in this category).
Academics have long speculated over the reasons for why stereotyping exists. Some examine it from the angle of group dynamics and group identity. Others take a cognitive approach, claiming that it exists because people find it easier to deal with categorised information.
Racial or ethnic stereotypes can be one of the most pernicious and violent forms of prejudices. Throughout history is has been common for nations with military and economic power to discuss less powerful people in terms of racial stereotypes.
The ancient Romans and Greeks referred to uncivilised people as barbarians (barbaros). The Chinese had a similar term (Yi) for the northern tribes that were outside of their cultural sphere.
During the 19th century ideas of racism and national stereotypes became linked with nationalism. The age of exploration, empire and slave trade solidified preconceptions about dominant ethnic groups.
At the end of the century Rudyard Kipling, the Indian born British writer of such classics as The Jungle Book, wrote a poem called The White Man’s Burden. This poem is a justification of colonialism as the duty of civilised people to help the simple-minded savages they ruled over. It opens:
Take up the White Man’s burden, Send forth the best ye breed
Go bind your sons to exile, to serve your captives’ need;
To wait in heavy harness, On fluttered folk and wild—
Your new-caught, sullen peoples, Half-devil and half-child.
In the 20th century the Nazi party came to power in Germany. Their belief was that ethnic Germans were the master race (Herrenvolk), who had a duty as described above. Negative stereotypes about the Romani, Slavs, Serbs, non-whites and particularly Jewish people in Nazi Europe lead to the Holocaust. This resulted in the deaths of over 6 million Jewish people as well as unknown millions of other people from stereotyped groups.
Science and Ethnic Stereotypes
Much ethnic and racial stereotyping has come along with a supposedly scientific, or pseudo-scientific, justification. The Scottish philosopher David Hume said:
“I am apt to suspect the Negroes to be naturally inferior to the Whites. There scarcely ever was a civilised nation of that complexion, nor even any individual, eminent either in action or in speculation. No ingenious manufacture among them, no arts, no sciences.”
The German philosopher Immanuel Kant claimed:
“The yellow Indians do have a meagre talent. The Negroes are far below them, and at the lowest point are a part of the American people.”
During the 18th and 19th centuries the field of Eugenics grew in popularity. It was based on the notion that supporting selective mating could improve the quality of human beings. The Nazis took these ideas, in combination with the discoveries of evolution and genetics, as justification for extermination and castration programmes.
However, science was not unified in its racism. The English biologist Charles Darwin, credited with discovering evolution, said:
“It may be doubted whether any character can be named, which is distinctive of a race and is constant … they graduate into each other, and … it is hardly possible to discover clear, distinctive characters between them … As it is improbable that the numerous, and unimportant, points of resemblance, between the several races of man, in bodily structure and mental faculties (I do not here refer to similar customs) should all have been independently acquired, they must have been inherited from progenitors who had these same characters.”
Ethnic and Racial Stereotypes Today
Issues of racism and ethnic stereotyping exist even today. The association between black people and criminality is a stereotype that is prevalent in the USA. A prime example of this is the discrimination that black people face in the criminal justice system.
According to the Huffington Post:
- In New York City, blacks and Latinos make up about 50 per cent of the prison population.
- Nearly 80 per cent of NYPD stop-and-searches were on black and Latino people.
- Black offenders receive sentences on average 10 per cent longer than white offenders for the same crime.
- Blacks are 21 per cent more likely to receive mandatory minimum sentences.
- The chance of imprisonment of a black male born in 2001 is 1 in 3.
These stereotypes can also affect automatic, instinctual behaviours. For example a study by academics from the University of Colorado and the University of Chicago showed that both black and white people would instinctually link black people with violent crime faster than with white people. This was demonstrated by allowing black and white participants to play a videogame where a person was shown holding ether a gun or a harmless object. The participant has to choose whether or not to shoot the target. Both black and white participants were more likely to choose to shoot the video game character if he was black.
Another study showed that teachers in the USA tended to have lower expectations of students that had names more associated with black people.
Black people are not the only racial group that receives negative stereotyping in the USA. Hispanic and Latino people are disproportionality associated with crime in news media, while Hispanic women are likely to be portrayed as overly sensual, provocative and passionate. Italian Americans are often disproportionately associated with organized crime and the mafia. Arab Muslims are routinely racially profiled due to an association of Islam with terrorism. East Asians also are negatively stereotyped; East Asian men are frequently portrayed in cinema and television as nerdy, unattractive and asexual. East Asian Women are often portrayed as passive, submissive and objectified.
While a great deal of progress has been made in the area of gender equality in the USA and globally in recent years, there remains plenty of stereotypes about men and women that have a negative effect on peoples’ lives.
Gender stereotypes in the USA have been influenced by the principle of the nuclear family. The sociologist Talcott Parsons developed the idea of the nuclear family in 1955 as an idealised model of the family unit, which included a mother, a father and some children. In this model men and women would contribute to the family unit based on the attributes that their gender afforded them: men would work for money and only do manly housework such as fixing or constructing. Women would look after the children and handle the majority of the housework. This feeds into the assumptions that men are inherently practical, strong and leading whereas women are inherently nurturing, soft and passive.
Lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people still are victims of stereotyping, prejudice and hatred in the USA. Due to religiously motivated hatred of homosexuality, there is an assumption that LGBT people are not themselves religious. This is not true; 60 per cent of gays and lesbians in the USA describe their faith as “very important” in their lives.
Lesbians are often assumed to be butch, with short hair and baggy clothes. Alternatively, where lesbians are considered attractive, lesbian sex is fetishized. Gay men are often presented as exhibiting what are assumed to be feminine characteristics including walking manner, speech and body language. They are also assumed to be more promiscuous than heterosexual people. Bisexual people are often presented as dysfunctional, villainous and opportunistic. Transgender people are often assumed to have mental health issues.
- People with disabilities are different from fully human people; they are partial or limited people, in an “other” and lesser category. As easily identifiable “others” they become metaphors for the experience of alienation.
- The successful “handicapped” person is superhuman, triumphing over adversity in a way which serves as an example to others; the impairment gives disabled persons a chance to exhibit virtues they didn’t know they had, and teach the rest of us patience and courage.
- The burden of disability is unending; life with a disabled person is a life of constant sorrow, and the able-bodied stand under a continual obligation to help them. People with disabilities and their families — the “noble sacrificers” — are the most perfect objects of charity; their function is to inspire benevolence in others, to awaken feelings of kindness and generosity.
- A disability is a sickness, something to be fixed, an abnormality to be corrected or cured. Tragic disabilities are those with no possibility of cure, or where attempts at cure fail.
- People with disabilities are a menace to others, to themselves, to society. This is especially true of people with mental disability. People with disabilities are consumed by an incessant, inevitable rage and anger at their loss and at those who are not disabled. Those with mental disabilities lack the moral sense that would restrain them from hurting others or themselves.
- People with disabilities, especially cognitive impairments, are holy innocents endowed with special grace, with the function of inspiring others to value life. The person with a disability will be compensated for his/her lack by greater abilities and strengths in other areas — abilities that are sometimes beyond the ordinary.
It can be all too easy to slip into stereotyping people based on a few obvious characteristics. While it can be hard to help, by doing this you rob a person of being able to be judged based on their own character, their achievements and their flaws. Each person is more than simply his or her race, gender, sexual preference or physical condition. Stereotypes reinforce unfairness in society, and those who judge others based on these assumptions live in fear and fuel hatred.
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