I was having a discussion in class yesterday (which I initiated) about stereotypes and it got me thinking that this is an excellent topic to write about. Especially since I realized that most of my posts deal with stereotypes in one way or another. So here, in no particular order some thoughts on stereotypes.
Everyone knows them. Ask anyone what they think what’s typical (or stereotypical) for Germans or Americans or Italians or Africans (there is a stereotype in that question already) and they will have some answer. Chances are that different people have the same answers. And not just on nationalities. Ask the same question for men, women, teachers, students, bus drivers, soldiers, homosexuals, blacks, Native Americans, punks, rappers, superheroes, blondes, redheads, football players, chess players role-game players, poor people, rich people, teenagers, babies, old people and so on and so on. Or about animals. The list is long (sure, check on Wikipedia) and everyone knows its contents.
They are a cultural phenomenon. I personally don’t believe that it’s essentially human to have stereotypes, at least not in the way we use them today. Stereotypes are normally not taught to us by our parents. At least not consciously. But subconsciously we learn them all the time. From things our parents talk about, from things other people talk about, from books, movies, art and songs. Some people probably claim that we learn them from our own experiences but how can we really know? Do we develop stereotypes based on what we see or do we see things based on the stereotypes we already have? It’s not so easy to differentiate, especially since we learn most stereotypes from such an early point in our childhood that it’s hard to look at anything objectively. Children’s books are full of them. Most stories work mostly with stereotypes, if they don’t, people get confused because they are used to them so much.
They are comfortable. One reason why stereotypes are persistent is that people take comfort in them. It’s easy to see the world in black and white, in clear categories without blurred lines. Good and evil is so much easier than something in between. You don’t have to think or make decisions, you just know that the man is the hero and the woman is just a bystander, that terrorists kill people for no reason and Americans fight wars for good reasons, that pigs can be eaten but cat can’t. Most of us enjoy having guidelines what to do and to think because we grew up with so many contradictions that we gladly jump on the stereotype bandwagon. At least it knows where it goes!
They can be used for power. If I am in the position to decide who is good or bad, I can make myself more powerful very easily. If I tell my students often enough that they know nothing because they are young and stupid and that I know everything because I’m a grown-up teacher, I eventually can tell them whatever I want. Wars are fought because of stereotypes, people are killed because they are gay, black, female or uncivilized. Stereotypes de-individualize anyone who falls into a certain category.
They are dangerous. Follows directly from above: Either you are with us or with the terrorists. Either you are American or a communist. Either you have Aryan blood or you can be exterminated. Either you are with the court or against it. Either you believe in democracy or in an inferior political system. Either you are a believer or a sinner. Either you are a human or an animal. Once clear line is drawn by giving certain attributes to a certain category, anyone beyond that line can be ignored, persecuted, punished, killed.
You can change them. Think twice before you repeat a common stereotype. Try to see beyond the straight lines. Look at the edges. Say things that don’t fit in. Defy expectations. Think of the stereotypes that are attributed to you. Are you really like most other females? Are you really like everyone else who has good grades? Do you want to be judged on your nationality? On your clothes? On what you eat? Reflect. Question. Avoid ignorance. Don’t pretend that is how the world works.