Stereotypes

Not to stereotype either progressives or conservatives, but the two groups tend to see stereotypes differently. For conservatives, many so-called “stereotypes” are actually accurate statements about group differences. Thus, some of the most salient racial stereotypes (e.g., about Asians being smart and Blacks being good athletes) are viewed not so much as stereotypes -- after all, everyone knows that the statement doesn’t apply to EVERY person -- as assertions of group differences.  In other words, conservatives argue that Asians (and Whites) do tend to be smarter than other groups and that Blacks and Latinos do tend to engage in more criminal behavior, and the only reason not to talk about such fact-based group differences is because it offends the sensibilities of liberal political correctness.

For progressives, stereotypes represent a disturbing character flaw.  They see stereotypes as endorsements of group superiority or inferiority, depending on preconceived notions.  Thus, stereotypes of Asian intelligence and Black criminality (e.g., drug use) are seen as expressions of prejudice that is not rooted in either facts or reality.

Importantly, mainstream dictionary definitions are vague enough to legitimize either position. For example, Dictionary.com defines a stereotypes as a “simplified and standardized conception or image invested with special meaning and held in common by members of a group.”    

Research studies conducted by cognitive and social psychologists reveal that stereotypes are often contextually based, meaning that we have different stereotypes for different social contexts (see Rupert, 2000).  In addition, psychologists generally agree that stereotypes:

  • may be accurate or false.

  • may describe positive or negative characteristics

  • may be intentional or automatic

  • may be consciously endorsed or rejected (i.e., may or may not result in prejudice)

  • may or may not have an impact on behavior (e.g.,discrimination)

  • have both positive and negative functions

  • may have either positive or negative outcomes

While this is not the appropriate forum for a comprehensive review of what scientists have learned about stereotypes, we do want to briefly discuss the evidence for whether or not stereotypes are accurate. Sometimes they are. For example, men are stereotyped as being violent (relative to women) and data consistently show that a disproportionate number of men commit violent crimes.  However, sometimes they're not.  For example, African American men are often stereotyped as "drug users", but data (from randomly-selected community samples that protect theidentity of respondents) show that a higher percentage of White men report illegal drug use than Black men. Often, we don't really know. The bottom line is that the existence of a stereotype not only doesn't tell us anything useful about any individual; it doesn't even tell us anything useful about group differences.  All they tell us is that there is a common shared perception about a group difference.  The perception may be either accurate or false.

At the same time, there is also no evidence that stereotypes are indicative of a character flaw. Sometimes we knowingly and intentionally embrace the accuracy of a stereotype, but  research with theImplicit Association Test (IAT) demonstrates that stereotypes are often unintentional, effortless, and automatic, which is to say that they are not under our conscious control.  People seem to have an innate need to place people (and objects) into categories.  However, the categories themselves are not an essential part of the natural world.  They are social creations that are a function of the cultural and political Zeitgeist, and as the Zeitgeist changes, so do the categories.  As just one example, Americans’ stereotypes of Japanese people went from predominantly positive to negative after Pearl Harbor and then eventually turned positive again as our relationship with Japan improved after WWII.  In addition, stereotypes are not necessarily associated with prejudice.  We might reject stereotypes for all sorts of reasons, including having information that the stereotype is false, believing that God doesn’t want us to stereotype, or, understanding that the reason it is true is because of social conditions (e.g., access to resources) rather than group status.

Whatever the reason, when we reject a stereotype, we also make a deliberate choice not to hold a prejudicial attitude. The problem is that we don't necessarily have a conscious awareness of all the stereotypical thoughts that pop up.  It's this lack of awareness that can lead to unintended prejudice.

It’s worth noting that people are more likely to see their own group as consisting of individuals who are different from one another in important ways, while seeing groups they are not part of as consisting of individuals who are more alike. As a result, we more frequently reject (and complain about) stereotypes of our own group and endorse stereotypes of other groups. Thus, both racial minority groups and white conservatives tend to believe that their own racial group is unfairly targeted and stereotyped.

Notably, even when we consciously endorse stereotypes, our behavior may be inhibited by a variety of social factors, including legal prohibitions against discrimination and fear of public shaming and ridicule.  However, whether progressive or conservative, we are more likely to act on our stereotypes when such action is within the social norms or when the situation is sufficiently ambiguous that it is not clear what the socially-appropriate action is.

QUESTIONS TO PLAY WITH:

What stereotypes are you aware of that target your racial group? Which of those do you endorse/agree with?

Are stereotypes necessarily harmful (what about positive stereotypes like “smart” or “athletic”?

Are stereotypes ever useful?

What stereotypes have you taught yourself to reject? Why those particular ones?

Contributors: 

Mikhail Lyubansky

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