Taipei, Taiwan 08.10.2016 – Stereotypes are awful things. There is no getting around that. Positive, or negative, they create a generalized approach to dealing with entire groups of people. In some sense, they are born out of the human will to want to understand the world around them. To make sense of the unknown or the little known of a group of people, categorizing them is one way for our minds to make sense of them. However, it is when we add a sense of value to that category and give it meaning, we turn it into some completely different, a stereotype.
Stereotypes are almost like mind maps for interpreting the world around us. While it is noble to think that in this day and age anyone with an Internet connection and half a brain can simply research any given topic or culture, it is not realistic. Though, I do not believe it would take much effort to learn that Africa is not a country, not all Asians look-alike or that not all Muslims have a connection to Daesh. The mind maps we create are usually not as sinister as trying to suggest all Muslims are secretly plotting to destroy Western civilization by a form of Islamification, as some right-wingers would have you believe, but a stereotype doesn’t have to be elaborate to be counter-productive, it simply just has to exist within the ‘common sense’ of our common psyche to give it strength.
So although it makes sense to have stereotypes to create a mind map for understanding many cultures in our globalized world, it is a lazy way to view other people. For example, there is a stereotype that all African-Americans are good at sports. Statistics will show that African-Americans have a proportionately higher representation within sports and music than any other group in America. It could be easy to make the correlation that being black equals being good at sports and music, but you would be flawed in your logic.
For starters, not all African-Americans are good at sports or music. That right there should banish this stereotype, but if you want to find the reason why sports and music seems to have a higher proportion of African-Americans, then you shouldn’t look at the correlation of African-Americans are naturally better, but you should find the correlation that unlike many other groups in America, African-Americans do not have the same opportunities for higher education as say a middle-class Caucasian Americans. For many African-Americans, the avenue of sports or music to break out of their surroundings is an easier road to take because it is more accessible, not because African-Americans are more naturally gifted as athletes or musicians.
Another stereotype which is easily debunked is the idea of Irish people and alcohol. It is no secret that Irish people like a drink but the notion of Paddy’s being alcoholics is easily dismissed. Ranked #1 in the world for highest consumption per capita of liters of pure alcohol is Estonia and #2 Belarus, #3 Lithuania. Ireland ranks #7 on the list, followed by Austria at #6. Austrians aren’t very well known for their drinking, yet statistically per capita they consume more than the Irish, yet the myth of Irish indulgence with alcohol is prevalent.
We enjoy our stereotypes. They offer us a sense of comfort and superiority in the face of the unfamiliar. In order to for us to understand the reality we are faced with, we often turn to our own perception of reality. In essence, it is as if we are wearing glasses with a lens that distort reality to fit a single paradigm reality that we want to perceive. To leave that reality is painful, as Slavoj Žižek states in the documentary ‘The Perfect’s Guide to Ideology’, we must be forced to break away from our reality, and that it is a struggle for us to leave that constructed reality.
Breaking that ideology and stereotype is often times difficult, but once it is broken and we see reality for what it is, or what the stereotyped ‘other’ sees themselves as. There is also the concept of a ‘self-fulfilling prophecy’ associated with stereotypes. If they become normalized within society, they become accepted, even by those who are stereotyped. Whether they are positive or negative, they are part of the envisioned culture of the stereotyped.
The problem with stereotyping is that it blurs the line between ‘Nature vs Nurture’. It is taken that a stereotype is the outcome of the nature of a people and their culture, as opposed to that stereotype being a byproduct of the nurture that society has offered, whether it is positive or negative to create an image that is not indicative of the said people. The line is blurred because although those stereotyping see nature as having an affect on the stereotyped, they still understand that this perception is wrong, and that the nurture that they as a society have given, negative/positive has produced the stereotype in a self-fulfilling manner.
Cognitive dissonance is a relevant concept for people who conform to believe stereotypes. They are conflicted between knowing that not everyone fits the stereotype, but they still continue to believe it as a universalistic approach to group a people together to help them come to terms with their own inferior knowledge of that people.
The evolution of stereotypes is something that has recently captured my attention. Stereotypes have a weird type of duality. They are fixed concepts in our society, but they have the ability to change over time. One such example is how the image of the Chinese in the West has developed over the last three decades.
Bruce Lee and Jackie Chan created a more masculine image of the Chinese, albeit a desexualized one when compared to James Bond who ‘always gets the girl’. The Kung Fu images of Asians is still a damaging stereotype, but it is interesting to see what the image is today. In the minds of many today, as a result of popular culture, Chinese are considered shy students who keep to themselves and are avid gamers. They are reclusive people who keep to themselves. Oddly enough, the same theme of being desexualized still carried over. That in itself is worth writing an entire book to explain.
Using the same example of Irish alcoholism, the evolution of this stereotype has changed from being a socially backward image of Irish drunkenness to a more generally accepted reality that Irish people can handle their drink better than most, while also being privy to enjoying a drink more than most. Of course as I have stated, it’s simply not true. The Irish are not the largest drinkers per capita and this trend has only become pronounced in modern times, as liters per capita were far less 50 years ago than what they are now.
In conclusion, stereotypes are a distortion of reality. They are born out of a sense of inferiority and a lack of knowledge on the part of the stereotyping party. They can be positive and negative, rigid and flexible, true and false. They are a way to understand our reality while not accepting it at the same time. The fact that stereotypes can evolve, speaks louder than words. Stereotypes are nothing more than a social construct that are devoid of a grounding of the true nature of a people. It is arrogant to believe that anyone one group of people can give value to another without understanding them or getting their input into their own image.