The Impact of Stereotyping
After reading my previous blog on stereotyping, a student recently asked, “Aren’t there some things that are true about stereotypes?” Many would agree that each stereotype has some “truth” to it.
The short sociological answer to this question is, of course, yes, there are people who live up to those stereotypes about different groups. There are probably some people who fit whatever stereotype you can think of, (e.g., blond women who are not so smart, Asian Americans who are smart).
The problem lies with how stereotypes over generalize about an entire group and blind us to those characteristics in others and other characteristics in the stereotyped groups.
For example, taking my first stereotype above, blond women are not smart, we are more likely to notice (and find humor in) blond women who sound dumb or who do things that look stupid. Noticing those things reinforces the idea that blond women are dumb.
If we see a blond woman doing or saying something that is smart, we may not notice it at all. If we do notice it, we may define it away as a lucky accident or as the one smart blond woman who exists in the world.
We are not so likely to notice others saying or doing things that don’t look so smart – and if we do notice them, we are not as likely to attach those traits to the entire group to which we assume those people belong.
This is especially true if the group to which we tie those people has an opposite stereotype applied to them. Thus, if we see a person whom we define as Asian American doing something that looks like a not-so-smart move, we are not likely to then define all Asian Americans as dumb. Instead, we are more likely to see that as an individual doing something dumb, or we might not even judge what they’re doing as not-so-smart.
This process is insidious and subconscious. We often act on it without thinking.
I once had a wonderful teaching assistant who told a great anecdote when we discussed this issue. When people looked at him, they assumed he was an African American male. He had a job during grad school as a tutor in the university computer lab. He worked in that lab for many weeks and was puzzled because few students would seek his help or agree to let him help them.
One day he was chatting with a colleague in the lab and mentioned that his mother was of Asian descent. After that day, many students sought his help with the computers and other work. What was the difference between that day and the previous days? After that day, the students who used the lab heard that he was “not just black, but part Asian” thus they judged him talented and able to help with technological and other issues. (Thanks, Bruce, for sharing that story!)
His knowledge and talents did not change from day to day but the way students perceived him and his skills changed.
Stereotype threat—where certain characteristics can become self-fulfilling prophesies for those defined as having them—and implicit associations (automatic associations often linked with stereotypes) are other examples of how stereotyping affects us on a very personal level which can negatively impact our own self-image and performance and our interactions with others.
We’ve all witnessed or experienced it – on both sides of the equation! Try to acknowledge how it has affected your behavior with others since we won’t be able to lessen the impact of stereotyping with out first acknowledging it.