Uncommon Common Sense
By Bill Frayer
The Problem of Stereotypes
The most common problem that comes to mind when the word “stereotype” is uttered is racial stereotyping. Everyone is familiar with this problem, and almost everyone sincerely believes that they are not guilty of such behavior. The key is to recognize such thinking and not base our judgments on it.
First, we need to have a clear idea of exactly what stereotyping is. To generalize is to apply specific characteristics without verification. This is a necessary thinking skill and does not, in itself, constitute weak thinking. For example, when we visit a clinic to have our blood tested, we do not request that the technician check all of our blood, for we are sure that the blood collected is the same as that in the rest of our body. This is a reasonable generalization.
Similarly, I could probably make the generalization that the Americans, Canadians, and Europeans living at Lakeside share certain characteristics. They have a wide variety of Spanish language ability, they are considerably more financially secure than many Mexicans, and they enjoy the company of other gringos. This is probably a reasonable generalization because it fits the vast majority of this population.
However, if I were to suggest that the expats here make no attempt to speak Spanish, display rude behavior in restaurants, and enjoy displaying their wealth in an ostentatious manner, that would be an unreasonable generalization. Certainly we do know that some gringos behave in such a way, but many do not. That is why it would be unreasonable to make such a generalization. This is the definition of a stereotype: an unreasonable generalization.
Now, I would suggest that it is human nature to develop stereotypes. For example, I am sure you can think of stereotypes when I mention the following categories of people: Mexicans, Muslims, Texans, lawyers, used car salesmen, blondes, and rich people. Of course, we should know that these stereotypes are false, at least in the majority of cases.
Much of our humor is based on stereotypes, which is probably harmless. I have a friend from Maine who sends me all the Mexican jokes he can find, probably because he thinks I will enjoy them. The stereotypes imbedded in these jokes are, of course, stereotypical representations of Mexico and Mexicans. Living here and having Mexican friends, I not only find these stereotypical representations incorrect, but offensive. I have, tactfully, tried to explain this.
And this is the problem with stereotyping: some people believe that stereotypes are accurate. Think of the people you know who were sincerely worried about you moving to Mexico. Their concern was undoubtedly based on ignorant stereotypes. They formed these stereotypes based on popular media about Mexico and not by actual experience. Is there a basis for some of these stereotypes? Sure. There always is some basis, but it is only a small part of the population that fits this unreasonable generalization.
The more you know and care about Mexicans, Muslims, Texans, lawyers, car salesmen, and rich people, the more you are less apt to stereotype those groups. Of course, some people work hard to resist clear thinking in this respect. If you ask many Americans what they think about politicians, they often rate them as slimy bottom-feeders, to be charitable. Yet, if you ask them about their own representatives or senators, they likely find them to be exceptions to their own stereotypes, which is why incumbents tend to get re-elected.
Yet, this is a popular view. The more reasonable view would be that some politicians are corrupt and insincere, but most are hardworking and trustworthy. This actually raises another issue, that we love to have people to conveniently blame for our own shortcomings, but that is another topic altogether!
So, as good thinkers, how do we deal with stereotypes? First, we need to understand what they are: unreasonable. We need to be able to detect stereotypes when we encounter them and recognize them as such. Then, we have to remember that they are not true. We can understand what the stereotype is without believing it! Easier said than done, sometimes.
In February, I will examine our tendency to blindly go along with popular views.