Going Beyond Stereotypes of Stereotype

Dividing and uniting as one and the same operation

In speaking of stereotypes, the emphasis is usually placed on the act of differentiation, but dividing and uniting are two sides of the same coin; in one act, both concepts operate simultaneously. We view the attitude of “us” and “them” as divisive and negative, but without the concept of “them” or “others”, uniting of people would also be impossible.

As an infant, we have no conception of “self” and therefore no conception of “other”. Little by little, we learn where “self” and “other” begin and end. And it takes a lifetime to discover who this “self” really is, and what the world is. There is nothing wrong with differentiating or dividing. In fact, it is a crucial skill we must acquire in order to function as a normal human being.

“Chinese, Japanese, Korean; What’s the difference?” This statement could come from someone who has no respect for these Asian cultures, and what is potentially offensive is the fact that he makes no distinction. He cares so little about these cultures that he does not even know what stereotypical qualities of each culture are. In this example, the lack of stereotypes, or non-distinction, is used to offend.

“Women are physically weaker than men.” This is a stereotype about women. If someone were to find this offensive, it would be because it divides men and women (pits one group against another), and at the same time disregards differences among individual women. So, both forces (distinction and non-distinction) are operating simultaneously in this single offense.

Any group can always be subdivided. Among religious people, we can divide Christians and Muslims. And, it is possible to formulate an offensive statement using this division. For instance, a Christian describing Muslims as terrorists. This uses distinction between Christians and Muslims, and non-distinction among individual Muslims. We can further divide various Christian religions, and pit one against another. As we continue subdividing, eventually we reach the point of individuals. One might assume that an individual is a point at which we could no longer subdivide and apply stereotypes. It is not so.

When we describe a person, we tend to choose descriptions that are obvious. Those descriptions are in fact stereotypes of that person. No one can behave absolutely consistently from situation to situation, and we all change over time. If someone has changed significantly in his characters and personalities, it is not appropriate to keep describing his old traits, but this happens often and it is called “typecasting.” It is a form of prejudice and it works the same way stereotypes do. When we describe a person, we resort to using characteristics that are consistent, obvious, and/or memorable, and ignore those that are inconsistent, subtle, and/or complex. We divide each person into multiple personalities and characters. There is no end to subdividing. And, at every stage, it is possible to abuse stereotypes.

As we move downwards, towards micro levels, we divide, and as we move upwards, towards macro levels, we unite. It is misleading to think that the former is negative and the latter is positive, for they are part of one and the same mechanism.

Stereotype and description as one and the same concept

What we consider as a benign description can reveal its hidden prejudice over time. In old movies and television shows, we can catch racism and prejudice expressed unintentionally. In novels like “Uncle Tom’s Cabin,” we see stereotypes that we consider offensive today. This means that even today we are making many racist remarks unintentionally. In fifty years or so, it will probably become obvious. We feel good about ourselves, when we point our fingers at the racists of the past, but we need to be concerned more about now, and particularly about unintentional and unconscious racism within ourselves. In this sense, intentional racism is an easier problem to solve, since we can at least see the problem.

Our ability to form stereotypes is actually enabling us to speak our language. Every definition of every word is a stereotype. “Chairs have four legs.” That is a stereotype. “Frogs are green.” That is a stereotype. “Women have a uterus.” That again is a stereotype. The only difference is that some stereotypes (or definitions) are more probable than others. (E.g. A woman having a uterus is more probable than a chair having four legs.) In some cases it is virtually 100% probability, while in other cases, it is less than 50%. It is also possible for a stereotype (or a definition) to be completely wrong (0% probability).

When the probability falls below 50%, the stereotype or the definition of it becomes questionable or inappropriate. For instance, the stereotype of Polish people being stupid is quite puzzling in terms of where it came from. I once did a research on the web and found that it came from the result of the IQ tests given to various immigrant groups in the US. The majority of the Polish immigrants at the time were undereducated and scored poorly. Most stereotypes are based on reality, but there are many situations where this reality is skewed, misperceived, or misinterpreted. This phenomenon is not exclusive to what we call “stereotypes”; it applies to all forms of description, and even to inanimate objects and abstract concepts.

Once when I was working on a TV commercial, I had to find a typical beach ball (with vertical patches of bright colors). I went to a dozen stores in New York, and found none. Most of them were prominently branded with cartoon characters or logos. Some had unusual patterns. In this way, a description can create its own reality. We come to expect specific characteristics, even though they don’t actually exist in reality.

Not seeing that “description” and “stereotype” are one and the same mechanism is part of the reason why we become blind to our own prejudice. For an anti-Semite, Jewish people being greedy and cunning is not a “stereotype”; to him it is merely a description of what Jewish people are. It is precisely because one is blind to one’s own prejudice that one chooses to use the word “description.”

Any stereotype or description can be used positively or negatively. When we use a description negatively, we tend to call it “stereotype” and when it is benign or positive, we tend to call it “description.” The popularity of fried chicken among Blacks is often viewed as a stereotype, but the popularity of rice among Asians is just a benign description. The line between stereotype and description is quite arbitrary in this way. The same tool has both potentials, and the underlying mechanism is actually the same.

In the mass media, we often see stereotypes used with no negative intentions, but regardless of their intentions, they could have a negative impact on a certain group of people. For instance, in advertising, Asian people are often pictured shaking hands with White and Black people in suits to convey an “international” business relationship. Many would consider this as a positive image, but for Asian Americans who are as American as any other Americans, this type of image reinforces the notion that Asian people are “foreign,” that they are not one of “us.” I’m sure the people who came up with this piece of advertising had no bad intentions. They might have even had good intentions. It would not occurred to them, therefore, to use the term “stereotype” to describe what they were doing. This is precisely the danger. Not realizing that “description” and “stereotype” work the same way can blind us from seeing that our use of a “description” (in this case a visual description of international business) can potentially hurt certain groups of people.

Especially when we do advertising, it is helpful to keep in mind that what we consider as a benign description can potentially harm certain groups of people. In the example above, I am not criticizing anyone using Asian people to visually describe international business. It is not possible to avoid all conflicts of interest. What makes one group of people happy can at the same time make another group unhappy. Politicians are keenly aware of this phenomenon. However, it makes a big difference when we actually consider the potential harm, and weigh the cost and the benefit. In most cases, we are not even aware of the fact that we are hurting certain groups of people. In this sense, it is helpful to consider all “descriptions” (textual or visual) as “stereotypes,” because the latter term draws attention to the potential danger in what we are doing.

What we need to keep in mind is that a stereotype is a statistical concept. As such, it does not predict anything about the individual samples. “Women are physically weaker than men,” is statistically correct, and this statistical knowledge can be beneficial in certain situations (e.g. in rescuing operations). But when you are dealing with individual women, we must realize that it does not describe them. All we can know is the probability, but a probability of a characteristic is not itself a characteristic. Abuse of stereotype and abuse of statistics operate the same way; they are essentially one and the same problem.

Addressing our own prejudice

It is also important to realize that our brains are actually designed to be prejudiced. Contrary to the popularly held belief, we do not learn to be prejudiced. The way our memories work is already predisposed to being prejudiced. In our brains, we strengthen certain connections physically through repetition. Once strong connections are made in our brains through frequent experiences of similar things, any new things we perceive or experience thereafter are drawn to those strong connections for interpretations, like the way more cars are drawn to highways. This is the cause of many prejudices, racial or otherwise. We are predisposed to being racists; so we must make conscious efforts to avoid it.

Stereotype is a powerful tool that can be used positively or negatively. It is like a gun that could be used to kill or save lives. Studying examples of stereotypes, and labeling them good or bad, doesn’t help us much because the cause and the effect do not have consistent relationships in stereotypes. A good cause does often lead to a good effect, and a bad one to a bad one, but a good cause could also have a bad effect, and vice versa. Furthermore, a bad effect for some could be a good effect for others. (e.g. The stereotype of Blacks being good at basketball has mixed effects.) The only thing that we can do is to understand how stereotype works. And, we must do this without any preconceptions about what stereotype is or could be.

Stereotype being a statistical concept, collecting examples of them and studying patterns and similarities, and categorizing them, leads to yet another stereotype: stereotype of stereotypes. The same problems associated with stereotype apply to itself. Whatever characteristics we discover about stereotypes, do not predict anything about the individual cases (again, only the probability.). If we project the patterns or general characteristics to individual cases, we become guilty of the same crime we are trying to prevent. The controversial book “The Bell Curve” is a case in point. It has all the usual signs of racism, and it smells like eugenics, so everyone attacked the authors like they were Nazis. This kind of behavior does not help. It makes everyone feel fearful of openly and constructively debating and discussing the issue.

This is why I feel it is important that we do not focus on judging individual cases of stereotypes. Our focus should be on understanding how prejudice works. As difficult as it may be to put aside moral judgment in studying of stereotypes, if we can’t recognize our own prejudice, it would cloud our view in seeing what it is and how it works. Criticizing of prejudice in others is often our attempt at exorcising the same problem in ourselves. It is more effective to criticize ourselves and resolve our own problems than to fix those of others.