Buying into the Stereotypes

As I’ve noted before, stereotypes persist in all human cultures, unfortunately partly because they’re convenient mental shortcuts, and partly, again unfortunately, because the group being stereotyped almost always has within it individuals, almost always a significant minority, if not more, whose characteristics fit that stereotype. There are two kinds of buy-ins, one by outsiders doing the stereotyping and one by members of the group being stereotyped.

Part of the underlying problem with stereotyping is that stereotyping often results from pressures either within or outside the group being stereotyped. Historically, for example, Jews were stereotyped as being usurious and greedy money-lenders, but in much of Europe for centuries, money-lending and banking were among the few non-menial professions open to Jews, and certainly it was the most lucrative. Among young inner city ethnic males, failure to adhere to certain styles of dress and behavior can be detrimental to one’s health and well-being. The problem, unfortunately, is that such attire and behavior are regarded as socially undesirable, if not a warning of imminent danger, by most of those outside that ethnic male community. This obviously creates not only a social but an economic problem. The behavior and dress that allow day-to-day survival mitigate against success outside the community.

The same pressures also exist in other “communities,” although they’re seldom mentioned. Wall Street financiers are often stereotyped as greedy, heartless, and self-centered money-grubbers. The problem there is that, at least from what I’ve seen, having any sort of conscience or awareness of the impact of their actions beyond Wall Street is extremely detrimental to their day-to-day success.

At the same time, what all too many people within such groups fail to understand is that appearances and behavior matter. They affect perceptions of outsiders and how they deal with members of the group being stereotyped. What also overlooked, or at least seldom mentioned, is that stereotypes are far more detrimental to members of groups with less economic and political power. Unemployed and less educated minority youth seldom have either; Wall Street financiers and attorneys, aka shysters and ambulance chasers or, in more refined circles, “hired guns for sale to the highest bidder,” have both power and money, and money and power tend to override stereotypes, which may be another reason why so many pursue both so vigorously, rather than actual expertise in a given field.

There’s no easy answer to stereotyping, as Mark Cuban, the owner of the Dallas Mavericks, just found out, when trying to explain how he’d react to encountering various “stereotypes” on a dark street. Yet I’d be willing to bet that 99% of all Americans would do exactly what he said he’d do.

2 thoughts on “Buying into the Stereotypes”

  1. Phil says:

    Another part of the issue here is the area covered by “stereotype”. While I believe your discussion is about the stereotyping of people, this isn’t a restriction on the term. The lack of a distinct term is problematic in these discussions, and tends toward the generation of a stereotype about stereotypes!

    Stereotypes need only (1) apply to a particular type of thing, be (2) oversimplified, (3) fixed, and (4) widely held. This is the intersection of several important and necessary things – abstract thought and the ability to categorize require abstract-group applicable concepts (1), the learning process similarly requires (2) and generates (3) (nuance can’t be first, and we build on axioms), while a shared culture both requires and creates (4). The intersection of these things, though, represents a shared cultural point where learning has stopped prematurely, but taken on an axiomatic role – a mental shortcut in the guise of truth, detrimental relative to inaccuracy in application.

    Stereotypes about groups of people are detrimental in a special way, as whenever they are applied, regardless of accuracy, the target is being denied full mental weight as a complex individual. “Jews don’t eat pork” is problematic even when its application doesn’t disagree with reality, reinforcing “Bob is a Jew” instead of “Bob chooses not to eat pork”. The absence of a distinct term for this category of stereotype makes it harder to express this difference, and so more nuance is required; Fighting them might be easier if they were more readily stereotyped, themselves!

  2. Ryan Jackson says:

    There’s also just the sad fact that to some extent our brains are hardwired to read and pick up on patterns and that can leave us with impressions that are hard to shake even if we objectively know we should.

    As an example, I have worked as an investigator for financial crimes for many years. during my first year working Organized Crime I had the luck of working over 20 cases all out of California all stemming from a certain ethnic aligned mafia (I will not say which so as to avoid any unfavorable stereotyping here).

    Fast forward five years later and if you show me a credit card with a naming convention that fits that specific ethnicity, my knee jerk reaction is to assume the worst and look for signs of criminal behavior. I have to mentally force myself to step back and say “I don’t have any reason to assume this person is involved in anything.”

    I pride myself on not making assumptions about people and on always assuming the best even if I do prepare for the worst. It was something of an unpleasant shock the first time I realized what I was doing. But it is there in me none the less.

    Combine that with the fact that not everyone will make the effort to check themselves after enough experienced with something ending a certain way and you have yet more stereotyping.

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