No One Wants to be a Stereotype

Almost all thinking people, and more than a few who couldn’t be considered the most pensive of individuals on the planet, bridle at the thought of being stereotyped. Stereotyping is decried, particularly by individuals in groups that are most subject to negative stereotypes, and stereotyping is considered by many as merely another form of bias or prejudice, leading to one form of discrimination or another. 

Yet stereotypes continue to persist, whether publicly acknowledged, and even if decried.  They persist, as I’ve noted earlier, because people believe in them.  They are two reasons for such belief, first, because belief in the stereotype fulfills some personal or cultural need, and second, because there is a significant percentage of individuals within a given group that suggests the stereotype has some validity.  And sometimes they do, often happily, but more often, unhappily.

We have some very dear Greek friends, who have a large and very vociferously vocal family passionate in expressing their views on pretty much everything – and all of them take pride in that characteristic, insisting that it is a feature of most Greek families. I have yet to meet a shy and retiring Greek, although it is certain there must be more than a few.  This is a case of fairly innocuous stereotyping, but other stereotypes can and have been brutal and fatal, as Hitler’s “final solution” for the Jewish people of Europe demonstrated.

Yet… what if a stereotype has a basis in fact, in cold and statistics, if you will?  What if, for example, “white collar crime” is indeed indicative of the overwhelming prevalence of Caucasians engaging in it [which does seem in fact to be the case]? 

Under these circumstances, when should we ignore the stereotype?  Go out of our way to make certain we don’t “prejudice” our actions or attitudes?  In some cases, probably we should.  I certainly shouldn’t be surprised or astounded to find a quiet Greek.  But in other cases… ignoring stereotypes can in fact be dangerous.  Walking down dark alleys in inner cities, stereotyped as dangerous, is indeed dangerous, and because it is, one might be better off in heeding the stereotype. 

In short, like everything else, stereotypes arise for a reason, sometimes useful, sometimes not, and sometimes very deadly, and we, as individuals, have to decide where a given stereotype fits… which requires thinking, and that, unhappily, is where most of us fail, because stereotypes are a mental shortcut, and blindly accepting or rejecting shortcuts can too often lead to unexpected and, too often, unfortunate results.

6 thoughts on “No One Wants to be a Stereotype”

  1. Tom says:

    Thus as with everything – respect, believe, trust … but verify? If the experience with that individual “justifies” the stereotype bias then increase the caution.

    In just about all of your books which I have read so far there is a tendency to accept the need to act on the “stereotype”, even if it means one paints oneself with the same colors. It is also true that in all cases the heroine or hero does ensure/wait for the stereotype to show themselves in their true colors before action, often drastic, is taken. You have so far justified the acts reducing the hero/heroine to the level as the stereotype with the argument that not to act would result in greater bad/loss/worse environment, and this is the true cost of power and worth.

    Certainly tracking and dealing with people is easier when one knows their habits – which are often stereotype.

  2. Wine Guy says:

    Thinking about and using stereotypes isn’t necessarily bad (as someone who grew up in the south, I love fried chicken and watermelon) as long as you understand the limitations of stereotypes: they are only the cover of the book.

  3. Ryan Jackson says:

    I’d say Stereo-typing is more based on vocal minority than it is on common feature of the majority. Though it can be the second.

    Take your example of White Collar Crime being Caucasian. The media and a casual research does suggest that, but it’s wrong.

    The issue is that the most “news worthy”, the most flashy, the most able to catch our attention tends to be performed by a smaller group that appears to be Caucasian. But after working as a Fraud Investigator for near on six years, many of that as part of an Organized Crime group working with Secret Service and FBI on the big cases? Nine out of ten of those cases were in the domains of Armenian, Chinese, Middle Eastern or African American groups, depending on the type of white collar crime.

    I could name you a lot of Caucasians who pulled big and impressive looking cons and frauds. You’d note most of them are in jail. On the other hand, I couldn’t even begin to tell you who’s behind an Armenian Bust-Out ring or an Asian skimming operation.

    So sadly stereo-types are prevalent and are based on fact, just not always based on a majority or even significant portion of a given group.

  4. Robert Zeh says:

    Where stereotypes really fall apart is when the information you’re using to construct them is from the media. Stereotypes from you’re own experience are likely to have predictive power. But a media stereotype will only predict what you’ll see next in the news.

  5. Linda says:

    Ehm, but the white in ‘white collar crime’ refers to the colour of the collar. Back when the coin was phrased, the people working behind desks wore white collars, whereas the laborers who worked in factories had blue collars. It has nothing to do with skin colour… Or am I missing a point in using this reference?

  6. What you say is true, but at the time the reference was made, the vast majority of white collar workers were also white… and a majority still is.

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