After writing about “We are all Oxford” last month, I had several conversations with people about the topics raised in the post, especially those of benevolent racism, and the idea that a compliment can actually be racist. It seems that people can have a hard time understanding that; it can be hard to see past your privilege, but also probably because we don’t want to have to admit to ourselves that we may have said or done racist things.
This got me thinking about the idea of stereotypes – particularly, about the fact that even a good stereotype is still pretty harmful.
Just like bad stereotypes, good stereotypes are insidious; they get into our consciousness in such a way that we just assume that they’re true. Once you have a belief about a stereotype in your head, your mind uses something called a “confirmation bias” to support it.
For example, I remember years ago, driving with a friend of mine who would get annoyed whenever he encountered “Asian drivers.” If we got cut off by a driver who was Asian, or if the person driving slowly in front of us was Asian, he would say something like “ugh, Asian drivers.” Having never encountered this stereotype before, I just assumed he was correct, and that Asian people were bad drivers.
After a while, however, I realized that if we were cut off by someone who WASN’T Asian, he didn’t say “ugh, white drivers” or “ugh, black drivers”. Furthermore, he also didn’t pay attention to any time we encountered an Asian driver who didn’t cause us any problems (“Oh hey, look at that good Asian driver”). Since he already had the idea in his head that Asian people were bad drivers, he saw every example of a bad Asian driver as proof of that stereotype.
The confirmation bias works the same way with positive stereotypes as well, which can make them just as hard to unlearn. But it’s important to try, since even positive stereotypes negatively impact the people that they’re about.
Some stereotypes impact the way that our society treats people in different jobs. For instance, the stereotype that women are natural carers and nurturers can have very real repercussions for women. As a society, we feel justified in paying low wages to people (often women) in feminized jobs, like day-care workers and nursery-school teachers. We don’t see this work as valuable or as skilled, because women are supposed to be naturally good at it, and are supposed to enjoy it.
Furthermore, when people don’t exhibit the traits that are stereotypically assigned to their group, they may feel like a bad example of that group. In the case above, a woman who does not like children may be made to feel like she’s a “bad” woman or not a “real” woman.
Another place where I’ve noticed the repercussions of “good” stereotypes is through my experience teaching. The school where I taught had a student body whose population was between ¼ and 1/3 Asian. The good stereotypes associated with Asian students seem pretty universally known; Asian students are intelligent, hard workers, who respect teachers and value education. That kind of stereotype couldn’t hurt, right?
After teaching for a while, I realized that I was buying into this stereotype, and that I might be treating Asian students differently from white students. Where I didn’t assume that white students had any traits in common, good or bad, simply because they were white (I wasn’t thinking “white students are good at sports!” or “white students are good at class participation!”), I was ok with using phrases like “Asian students,” as if something could be generalized about them as a group.
Since I tended to be less worried about my Asian students academically, I realized I might be “checking in” less often to see how they were handling their work. I assumed that because they were “hard workers,” they would be able to understand and stay on top of our course work. While I don’t remember any specific instances where I actually did treat an Asian student differently, my beliefs made it entirely possible that I would have.
So basically, because of a stereotype, there’s the possibility that I offered an entire group of students less help. When you look at it like that, it doesn’t really matter if the stereotype was “good” or “bad”, does it?
My concern about the ways that these stereotypes and other cultural pressures affect Korean-American students led me to do some research during my first master’s degree about Korean-American students. According to this research, a lot of students feel stressed trying to both honor their Korean heritage and still fit in among their white classmates. They feel pressure from their parents to be the ideal child, and pressure from society to assimilate. Good stereotypes add to this stress as much as bad ones do.
When someone is a minority in a group, they are often assumed to speak for their group or to be a representative of that group (this is called tokenism). They might be asked their opinion “as a woman” or held up as an example. If an individual doesn’t have the positive traits often assigned to his or her group, that person may feel as if he or she is failing the group, or doing a bad job of representing them. This is a lot of unnecessary pressure.
So, in the context of academics, when a white person is bad at math, it’s seen as a reflection of that person, not of whether or not they are a “good” white person. But if an Asian person is bad at math, that may be seen as a way that they’re “bad” at being Asian. Balancing different parts of your identity is difficult enough without being made to feel like you’re failing one of them.
Finally, these stereotypes lead us to discount and devalue individual achievements. I have to imagine that an Asian person who works hard, pays attention in class, and spends a lot of time studying would be pretty insulted at the idea that they’re good at academics “because they’re Asian” instead of because they’re intelligent and hard-working. (Of course, there’s also the fact that using “Asian” as a catch-all can lead to wild over-generalizations, since Asia is made up of an incredibly diverse collection of countries and cultures.)
Even when thinking of a positive stereotype that doesn’t seem as heavy or important, like the stereotype that black people are good dancers, it’s still problematic because you’re still saying that all black people are the same, or at the very least that they have similar traits simply because of the color of their skin. You’re still making massive generalizations about a group. You’re still believing that you can tell something about someone’s character, personality, interests, or intelligence just by looking at them.
Furthermore, I have to wonder if letting yourself believe good stereotypes makes you more likely to believe bad ones, or if the persistence of good stereotypes lets us excuse the persistence of the negative ones. Recent instances – notably the Trayvon Martin and Jordan Dunn cases – clearly demonstrate the very real dangers that negative stereotypes can pose if they’re allowed to exist unchallenged.
So the next time you’re about to say something that treats all of the people in a group as similar (Gay guys are fashionable and witty! Mixed-race babies are so cute!) take a step back and think about it. Is there a way you can rephrase it that shows that you admire one particular man’s style and sense of humor, without attributing it to his sexuality? Can you express your adoration for that adorable baby because the baby is adorable, and not because its parents happen to be of different races?
Have you ever encountered a positive stereotype about your own group? About others? What do you think?