Monday, December 20, 2010

Stereotypes 101

This fall I've had the opportunity to talk about race among whites of all ages.  Not surprisingly, I found that some very old, very tired racial stereotypes are still alive.  So, in the midst of my holiday preparations and post-semester novel reading/movie watching activity, I thought I'd take a minute to comment on some very basic  stuff.

We all know the definition of the word, but, just for the record, my handy-dandy Apple dictionary defines stereotype as "a widely held but fixed and oversimplified image or idea of a particular type of person or thing."   I, personally, fit a number of stereotypes about Italian Americans -- I enjoy conversation around a good meal, for instance.  If someone were to say this about me I shouldn't be offended, because it's true.  On the other hand, if someone were to say that as an Italian American I probably have relatives who are involved in organized crime, well, then I'd have a right to be offended, yes?  The first is okay, because it's a "positive" stereotype, while the second is offensive, because it's a "negative" stereotype.  So, when a white person tells me that "African Americans are good at sports," that may be a stereotype, but it's also true ("Just look at the NBA!" a person once exclaimed as proof), and besides, it's meant as a compliment, so what's the problem?  

The first problem, of course, is that stereotypes deny people something that most of us value very much for ourselves, and that's individuality.  (If you don't believe me, just mention the history of white racism among a group of whites -- chances are you'll hear protests along the lines of, "Some whites may be racist, but not me! Don't group us all together -- I'm an individual!)  It doesn't matter if the stereotypical comments are well intended -- as social justice activist Paul Gorski notes, the impact of our words and attitudes matter more than the intent behind them.* 

The second problem with perpetuating so-called "positive" stereotypes is that there is often an unspoken continuation of the idea being expressed -- i.e., it's lucky that African Americans are good at sports, because they're not so good at other things.  

As I said, this is all very basic stuff.  Yet, basic or not, the stereotypes persist. I hear them because they're out there, and they're damaging to all of us.  So, my wish for us during this holiday season is health, happiness, and maybe a little self-reflection mixed in with our holiday cheer.


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