The Effects of Stereotyping

A stereotype is generally defined as a generalization about a group of people where people use a very simple pattern for judging an entire group of people.  It is defined by Webster’s New World Dictionary as “an unvarying form or pattern; a fixed or conventional notion or conception, as of a person, group, idea, etc., held by a number of people, and allowing for no individuality, critical judgment…”  Everyone uses stereotypes to some extent, as they help us to learn about people and culture.  People tend to judge all the time, and while it is best not to form an opinion right away, stereotyping does not get really dangerous until it begins to lead to other things.  It is said that our brains are simply wired to steretype others, and we categorize people everyday by race, gender, religion, ethnic background, and the like.  However, it is when people use these stereotypes for things like discrimination or even hate crimes that one can really see the true dangers of stereotyping.

One example of the negative effects of stereotyping would be simply laws and rules created where some people benefit and others do not based on negative stereotypes.  For example, the Jim Crow laws of the south would be an example of the consequences of negative stereotyping.  Blacks were looked upon as inferior beings.  Now, the stereotype that effects that kind of thinking is enough, but the results of that were devastating.  Blacks were actively discriminated against and held out of certain places and activities.  These Jim Crow laws were eventually abolished, but other laws replaced them, such as the Federal Housing Administration providing low interest loans only to white people to buy houses.  Whites built houses and fled the cities in favor of the new suburbs while blacks were very literally trapped in urban areas.  Their houses (if they did own their homes) were devalued or bought up at unreasonable prices for the construction of freeways.  Homes were not provided to replace all the low income housing that was lost, and many blacks were forced into housing projects in urban areas where air and noise pollution were high.  These people still today do not attend “equal” schools where they can obtain quality educations.  In other words, these laws led to other laws and the perpetuation of discrimination based on unfair stereotypes.

Another very negative effect of stereotyping is that people internalize these stereotypes.  For example, the stereotypes that women are supposed to be very thin can be very harmful to a woman’s self-esteem.  This internalization can lead to self-destructive behaviors, such as eating disorders.  This kind of stereotyping can also lead women to be vulnerable to all kinds of spending that would help them perpetuate this image, such as fashion, plastic surgery, makeup, or exercise equipment.  Even positive stereotyping can be harmful to groups and individuals.  For example, Asian Americans are seen as the model minority.  This should be positive, but it puts undue pressure on these individuals to succeed.  This can lead to effects like higher suicide rates.  This is especially hard on Asians who have more recently arrived in this country as refugees such as the Hmong.  They are supposed to be exceptionally smart and driven, according to the steretypes about Asians, but they are recent refugees so they do not have the skills to meet the stereotypes.  Society, therefore, sees them as burdens because they do not fit the views that people have.

Another effect of stereotyping is that it stops us from learning real facts about real people.  For example, if a person believes all Arab Americans are terrorists, that person need not learn anything more about Arab culture or people.  Or for Native Americans, much of what people know about American Indians is a stereotype.  People tend to see Indians as people who wear feathers, live in tipis, make whooping sounds, or other stereotypes.  The media helps to perpetuate these stereotypes, and therefore not much about this rich culture is actually learned.  Even though there are more than 800,000 Native American living in the United States today, they are spoken about in the past tense as if “real” Indians do not exist anymore.  Lumping the some 500 tribes together does not allow a person to see the richness and variation in these cultures.  Stereotyping Native Americans also allows us to believe the movie images about how the Indians killed so many whites, when in fact, many more Indians were killed by whites.  This stereotyping allows us to believe that they do not have a legal right to special hunting and fishing privileges, when in fact, they do have these rights.  They ceded land to get these rights.  In fact, many of these stereotypes about Native Americans have led us to place them on unproductive land in places far away from jobs or industry.  The Native Americans have been destroyed to some extent to being placed on these reservations.

So, while stereotyping seems to be a natural function of people and can aid us in understanding groups as a whole, stereotyping does not allow for individual differences.  Stereotyping allows people to discriminate and committ various atrocities against all kinds of people.  It allows us to pass laws that actually damage groups of people and prevents us from learning real information about real people.  What people should be concentrating on is getting to know each other as individuals and practicing respect rather than stereotyping them and using that to justify other terrible actions.  As a human race, we should be fighting against the simplicity and unfairness of stereotypes.  We should be fighting back against the media who perpetuate all of these harmful images.

Nachbar, Jack, and Lause, Kevin, Popular Culture:  An Introductory Text, Bowling Green University Popular Press, Ohio, 1992.  pp. 236-244.