The Problem with Stereotypes

Joanne Reed

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A stereotype is defined as a simplification of reality, a rigid, categorizing – and often discriminatory – representation. A stereotype is a fixed, overgeneralized belief about a particular group or class of people. By stereotyping, we infer that a person has a whole range of characteristics and abilities that we assume all members of that group have. For example, saying that women have no sense of direction, that girls suck at math, or that football is a man’s sport, are stereotypes.

Stereotypes are like air, invisible but always present. Stereotypes can be positive or negative. Negatives stereotypes about women or minority groups are easy to spot, more pernicious are the positive ones, such as men are not in touch with their emotions, black people are good athletes. They don’t seem so pernicious because their content is complementary, but stereotypes are bad even when they are good.

Generalization v stereotypes

The term stereotype, as it is understood today, was coined by Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Walter Lippmann. He defines the term in his 1922 book, Public Opinion, as “The pictures in our heads" that we have of a specific group of people. He adds that while this picture may not necessarily be complete, our habits, our tastes, our capacities, our comforts, and our hopes have adjusted themselves to it. While a stereotype may hold true for a group as a whole, it can distort our perception of an individual, who may or may not fit the stereotype.

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Stereotypes can be linked to any type of cultural membership, such as nationality, religion, gender, race, or age, but it is important to note that there is a difference between cultural generalizations and stereotypes. Cultural generalizations allow us to understand the patterns of cultures to which one belongs (nation, age, gender, etc…) and it provides the basis on which one can understand other cultures. Cultural generalizations involve categorizing members of the same group as having similar characteristics. Generalizations are flexible and allow for the incorporation of new cultural information. They are a type of hypothesis, or guess, of what we expect to encounter when we interact with a certain culture; and this is a good thing. This flexibility can subsequently lead to increased cultural awareness and thereby improve intercultural relationships.

Cultural generalizations must not however be confused with cultural stereotypes. Generalizations become stereotypes when all members of a group are categorized as having the same characteristics. Stereotypes are typically inflexible and resistant to new information. They can, and often do lead to prejudice and intentional or unintentional discrimination. Cultural stereotypes do not allow for individual differences and interfere with efforts to understand an individual on a personal level.

Curiosity and flexibility help navigate the differences between generalizations and stereotypes. While generalizations serve as a springboard for greater intercultural exploration and understanding, stereotypes hinder both awareness and further learning about others and about oneself.

The problem with stereotypes

“The problem with stereotypes is not that they are untrue, but that they are incomplete. They make one story become the only story”. Adichi Chimaamanda.

Stereotypes make us lazy and encourage nonchalant judgment because we assume things about people based on a stereotype. It drives and nourishes racism, sexism, and all form of discrimination. I have a strong aversion to labels and being put into a box; as soon as someone puts a label on you or throw you into a specific box, you lose your identity as a unique individual who may or may not fit into that stereotype.

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Stereotypical biases happen all the time. Knowing that this exist can make us more mindful as to the way we treat individuals from other groups. We are all unique and different from each other. What makes us different is not the color of our skin or our geography, it is the fact that there isn’t another person like us anywhere else.

So why try to put people into a box and stick a label on it? Because it is easier to control people this way. Once you belong to a certain box you are expected to walk on a straight and narrow line. Venturing outside that path is frown upon. Dissenting views and actions are not allowed because dissent is being viewed as being disloyal to the group.

I am not the same person I was when I was 20, 30, 40 years old. I am the sum total of my genetics, my upbringing, but also the books I read, the people I met, the countries I traveled to, the ups and downs that came on my path. I can be reliable and predictable but also spontaneous and unpredictable. I am all of that and more and a constant work-in-progress.

All around us, there are spheres of authority always dictating what we should do, how we should act, and what we ought not to do. Aside from the formal structure like the laws, there are also informal powers dictating our actions, lifestyles, speech, thought patterns, education, cultural upbringing, religion, etc. This invisible current forces us to travel down a certain path, act a certain way, and be a certain type of person. Much of our individualistic tendencies do not develop as freely as we think because we have to conform to societal expectations of us and stereotypes.

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One way to free ourselves from the shackles of societal restrictions that impede the originality and flexibility of each person would be to develop our individualism, and sense of freedom. Freedom refers to the ability to make decisions and take actions without any form of interference. Freedom comes with the dynamics of being able to change your choices and activities at any time. If you are free to do something, you should also be free to reverse it or do something else. You are free to be whoever you want to be and don’t have to stick to that choice forever. Today you can decide to be as exuberant and as colorful as you want and tomorrow you can decide to be as dull as the grey sky if you feel like it. Paint your own canvas with the colors you want. Be an artist.

To be free, you need courage. According to Earl Nightingale “The opposite of courage in our society Is not cowardice, it is conformity”. Conformity as a word means action in accordance with the prevailing social standards, attitudes, and practices. The problem is that when people are always thinking alike, no one is thinking at all. Courage on the other hand means boldness or braveness.

With this said, I will leave you with the wise words of Bassey Elimian whose sentiment on this subject echo mine.

“I am a woman and also an individual with a brain. Please don’t put me in a box. I admire and respect other women. I am a giver and advance my interests too. I respect people and choose not to worship them. I am a woman and not a doormat or a pushover. I don’t gossip, but I read and write.” Bassey Elimian.

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As an author, I made it my Quest to write about anything that nourishes and educates the mind with a zest of philosophy, plenty of good vibes, and this little 'Je ne sais quoi'. You can never underestimate the power of storytelling. Stories teach us about life, about ourselves, and about others.

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