Over the past few years the issue of stereotyping has become and remains a hot-button topic with many people, particularly those in groups subjected to the practice. The Oxford dictionary definition of the word “stereotype” is: “a widely held but fixed and oversimplified image or idea of a particular type of person or thing.”  Unfortunately, while most enlightened individuals deplore stereotyping, the fact is that even those who deplore it still engage in it, whether they realize it or not.  For example, while it is considered prejudicial to believe any young black male in a hoodie is a gang member, or up to no good, it’s perfectly all right to call every SUV or large pick-up truck a “gas-guzzler,” even if the owner has occupational or other needs no other vehicle can meet. But both are sterotypes.

At the same time, it is useful to consider that stereotypes exist essentially for one of two reasons: (1) a significant number or percentage of people (or vehicles, or anything else) is a group do in fact fit within the stereotype… OR (2) large numbers of people believe that they do.

It’s fairly obvious that stereotyping people based on misconceptions is prejudicial, but what if there’s a basis in fact?  For example, for centuries, there was, and still is, especially in western European-derived cultures, a stereotype of Jewish men as greedy, stingy moneylenders. 

While ancient Jewish law forbid excessive charging of interest, and charging interest was deplored in some texts, money-lending with interest charges was allowed by the Judaic faith, but by the fifth  century the Roman Catholic Church had prohibited the taking of interest, and in 1311, Pope Clement V made the ban on usury absolute.  In effect, all Christians were banned from money-lending; Jews were not. Since there were more than a few bans on what Jews could do in Europe, it wasn’t exactly a surprise that the banking business was initially predominantly Jewish and Jewish bankers remained active and prominent well into the 20th century. Thus, in point of fact, the stereotype of money-lenders as Jewish was accurate… but it’s highly doubtful that most Jewish money-lenders were anything like the stereotypes portrayed by playwrights and writers [such as Shylock in The Merchant of Venice], simply because acting that way would have been largely counterproductive at a time when Jews were facing continual persecution, not that reality has ever made much impact on prejudice.  Only a concerted effort toward change has been effective.

As for young black men in hoodies… that’s a problem, because, according to Bureau of Justice statistics, one in three black men will serve time in jail and 40% of young African-American males will spend time in some sort of confinement.  Part of that [possibly a very large part of that] is the result of a criminal justice system that prosecutes a higher percentage of minority youths than white youths and that, for the same offense, sentences black youths to longer sentences than those received by white youths, but… for whatever reason, unhappily, the stereotype applies to a significant percentage of black males… and that means, unhappily, that one needs to be at the least wary of young black men in hoodies on dark city streets.

In the end, there is not one problem with stereotyping, but two.  The first is obvious. Viewing every individual in a particular group as a stereotype of that group is both prejudicial and discriminatory.  The second problem is not as obvious, but just as real.  When any group has a large enough percentage of individuals who fit a negative stereotype, that group, and society as a whole, has a problem that needs to be addressed, and it’s almost certain that not all of that problem is purely prejudice. This problem is not just one for minorities.  Bankers, professional cyclists, the NRA, tea-partiers, American tourists abroad [“ugly Americans”], young male Muslims, college professors[ivory tower liberals], and Republicans, among others, all also need to face their stereotypes.

3 thoughts on “Stereotypes”

  1. Ryan Jackson says:

    I just want to commend and second your second point about groups making efforts to stamp out the cause of their stereotypes.

    Because I’ll be honest, even people who very much avoid being prejudiced fall victim to the stereo type.

    I’ve known quite a few federal agents, detectives and civilians dealing with oganized crime. It breeds the stereotype into our perceptions. After the eight, ninth, thirtieth case involving a certain organized criminal group, we start seeing a name or person that fits area and background linked to certain types of crime and we internally wince even before we start working the case or looking at the facts.

    That’s not a good thing, most of us make very strong efforts to ignore that subconscious, almost involuntary reaction, but it’s still there. As you said, it’s there because it keeps getting proven to be sort of right.

  2. Wine Guy says:

    I work in the emergency room and stereotypes get ER workers in trouble all the time. All ERs have their coterie (or coven, if you prefer) of drug seekers. Inside that group is a smaller group that is known by a variety of acronyms that boil down to ‘CWRD’: Crazy, With Real Disease.

    All ER providers have sent one of them packing with little or no care only to have them show back up within minutes or hours in extremis and deathly ill. And some die.

    It changes our attitude for a couple days… and then our heightened awareness is ground down by the millstone of more and more drugseekers coming for their vicodin, percs, dilaudid, oxys, etc.

  3. Linda says:

    Another problem with stereotypes is that they become self-fulfilling prophecies as well.

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