Let me begin with a few important clarifications: I define stereotypes as an oversimplified belief applied to all members of a specific group, and I define racism and sexism as the systematic oppression of a whole race or gender. Stereotypes can perpetuate racism but are not inherently racist. In this article, I’m focusing solely on stereotyping.
When we find ourselves espousing stereotypes, we often attempt to defend our right to make that statement. My goal is an attempt to debunk a few common justifications of stereotypes that I or others I know have made.
“I’m not hurting anyone”
It’s okay because the stereotype is positive, like Asians are smart, or a stereotype can be downright silly, like British people have bad teeth. It’s okay because no member of the group we are stereotyping is present.
It’s okay because we’re just joking with a close friend. These justifications could make stereotyping seem harmless.
However, stating a stereotype as truth can imbed the idea within our mind or the minds of others, which can subconsciously affect how we act towards members of a certain group. Whenever we treat someone differently based off a preconceived, potentially false notion without getting to know that person, we are treating them as less than an individual. We are imposing that stereotype on then, often forcing them to conform to that idea even if it didn’t originally apply to them. We are making it acceptable to use stereotypes to define a whole race or gender. That sounds more harmful.
“It’s actually true”
We’ve established that stereotypes can be harmful when false, but what if they’re an actual educated statement? They better actually be educated. Being friends with a few members of a race does not make you educated. Reading one article about one study does not make you educated. Extensively studying the many nuances of a culture or gender may make you educated. Most people aren’t even that educated about their own race (And yes, we can stereotype our own race).
Similarly, we often justify gender stereotypes using biological differences between males and females. Again, the stereotype must actually be proven. Yes, women tend to have worse spatial reasoning skills; no, women are not worse drivers than men. Also, differences in gender have both physiological and societal causes, so it’s virtually impossible to tell how much of a difference is attributable to biology. For example, men tend to be better at mathematical computation, but this is at least partly because men have been encouraged to develop this skill from the day they are born.
Of course, one may say that these differences are evolutionarily, which is at least partially true. However, women are no longer only gatherers. Unless we continue to pigeonhole them using incredibly old standards, women and men can evolve into new creatures that aren’t limited by outdated expectations. Yes, I recognize that this it takes an incredibly long time for this process to occur; however, just because the change won’t happen tomorrow, doesn’t mean we shouldn’t begin working for it today.
We also need to mind the word ‘tend.’ No science can find one truth that is consistent across a whole gender or race. When we create an idea about a population based off a truth that applies to a “statistically significant” portion of them, we are potentially ignoring an incredibly significant minority.
“I can’t help it”
Stereotyping is just what people do. Our minds are built to categorize, so why fight it?
What we can fight is mistreatment. We can be more aware of when our mind is stereotyping and recognize when we are treating a complete stranger differently based on an oversimplified, unjustified idea that we have about their culture, gender, age, religion, nationality, etc. Yes, we will probably never stop making stereotypes in our mind. However, we can start making a stronger effort to treat every person with the respect that an individual deserves.