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Stereotype Threat

August 29, 2011

Growing up I was exposed to a lot of stereotyping. It came in all forms, from jokes and off-handed, overheard comments to in-your-face media. And when you’re young it’s hard to differentiate between what you’ve heard and what you know–they become the same. So deconstructing these ideas later in life can be very work-intensive, and sometimes harrowing, as I try to peel apart these old, congealed conceptions to expose the seed they germinated from. Sometimes it turns out to be strange half-heard moments in a school hallway, and those are easy; sometimes it’s lies and bigotry from people I’d trusted and loved and never thought to second-guess, and those can be hard.

But as I pick apart these gnarled old chestnuts I come to realize what stereotyping actually means. Yes, this is a privilege of mine, that I didn’t have to think about this until I chose to, and I don’t just mean what a stereotype is. I mean the purpose of the stereotype, why they are, and how they manifest. A stereotype is a method by which we label people for easy categorization, a means to think less, to process and dismiss. Each generalization doesn’t just label, however; because it is a person we are defining it necessarily confines, distorts, and dehumanizes. Furthermore, it causes assumptions based on assumptions, which are rarely flattering to begin with. For the purposes of this post I’m labeling these three facets the face, the focus, and the fallout, because I’m a nerd who likes alliteration.

I feel it is also important to note at this point that there is no such thing as a “positive” stereotype. Though we may use a label containing language we think of as complimentary, the net result is the same as a “negative” stereotype, plus the weaselly misdirection in an attempt to avoid guilt. To illustrate, I’ll use a couple so-called “positive” (and yes I will feel the need to pretentiously air-quote that word every time) stereotypes in my breakdown, starting with one recently discussed.

Note: These are common stereotypes propagated in the US, at least in the midwest/west where I’ve spent most of my life. Mileage may vary.

The face: “Black women are so strong.”
This is to say, black women are emotionally stalwart, activist-oriented, no-nonsense bullshit-free zones. They are immune to depression, to exploitation, and even their sadness manifests in glorious, stone-faced revenge.

The focus: Black women cannot be hurt.
This means that no matter what their life stories are, what attacks are made against them, what indignity they may suffer, they shouldn’t cry. I don’t have to feel bad for hurting their feelings–I may as well feel bad for riding a horse or disciplining a dog. They don’t feel pain like real people. This also explains their tendency to be too loud, too obnoxious, too large–it comes with the territory.

The fallout: Black women aren’t human.
A black woman cannot be treated like a normal person because there can be no empathy. A black woman who walks through fire is not an amazing person–all black women are strong. It’s just natural that she suffer, if at all, in silence. A black woman who cries is exceptionally weak, doesn’t realize who she is, or is lying. Corollary: a white person (especially a woman) who succeeds in emulating a black woman’s strength is exceptionally strong. (This seems to be true also for “black men are natural athletes,” allowing white men who compete to enjoy extra glory for accomplishments.)

The face: “Asians are good at math.”
This is to say, Asian-American students, particularly in the high school-to-collegiate ages, are mathematically inclined. All subjects relating to math are processed easily by Asian-Americans either because of genetic advantage or their family/culture/history has groomed them for this purpose.

The focus: Asians are manifest intellectuals.
This means that no matter what their home lives, their personal interests, their eighteen years of piano lessons, they will always be real-life Vulcans. They don’t process emotion, or art, or creativity like normal people. They are career-oriented and driven in a pathological, almost supernatural way to succeed in their chosen, undoubtedly math and/or money-related field. There is no shame in asking for help, cribbing their work, or stealing their identities because all they care about is sums and success.

The fallout: Asians aren’t human.
Be they fifth-gen pre-civil-war immigrants or fresh-off-the-boaters, Asians cannot be treated like real people. They don’t possess beauty or feelings or imagination for any other purpose than to emulate or titillate Westerners, because they don’t need it. Their accomplishments are degraded because there is no success in accomplishing what you are made for. This allows them to be both the objects of pity AND fear, like any good robot culture. Corollary: their women exist to be saved from the weight of their backwards heartless native lands. Feel no shame in fetishizing them since it’s probably the most real love they’ll ever get.

Does this seem extreme? Maybe we’re just not paying enough attention. I’m not even a scholar of these trends and I can extrapolate this far, and I can feel niggling in my brain that there’s more I could have worked out in just these two examples. And again, these are the “positive” kinds–it only gets exponentially worse when the language doesn’t even bother to pretend to be flattering.

The primary trait of stereotyping is defining the Other, so it is by necessity othering to adhere to stereotypes. There is no “reason” beyond that for stereotypes–the stereotype is not a cliche. A cliche is a linguistic tool that has found repeated, constructive use in order to portray an idea, while a stereotype is a shoddy patch over our gaping lack of knowledge, which we use rather than choosing to educate ourselves. There’s nothing to be gained from them other than more ignorance, and the crusty feeling of cheap adhesive.

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