Paul R. Lehman, Confronting stereotypes in Amerca

June 26, 2010 at 11:25 pm | Posted in Ethnicity in America, Race in America | Leave a comment

One of the tools used in some societies to control its ethnic population is to stereotype them in ways that makes them less than human. Once this happens, the disrespect and denigration comes easily. Many people grow up in a society never realizing that the images they have of ethnic groups are nothing but stereotypical characterizations. Unfortunately, too many of these people never realize that the images they have of ethnic groups were created with a negative purpose in mind. These images are invoked when the majority society want to exert control over these groups to accomplish some partisan and usually biased purpose.

In America, words like, redneck, white trash, slant eyes, jungle bunny, bean eater, wetback, redskin, camel jockey, goat roper and a host of other similar word bring immediately to mind a specific ethnic group or portion of an ethnic group. None of these words are meant as compliments; they are used to divide and conquer. Along with these words come lists of characteristic that create a negative depiction of representatives of each group. For example, the word redneck is used to denigrate a European American who usually works a low-paying manual labor job out of doors. He generally lacks much formal education, speaks improper American English, listens to Country music, parties the weekend or until his money runs out etc. All these characteristics usually will not apply to every person identified as redneck, but some people will have enough to be identified as one. Any European American who does not consider himself or herself a redneck will usually resent being characterized as one.

Stereotypes are created by taking data from a variety of sources and putting them together to make a composite image. The information gather is not in itself negative. However, when the information is arranged in a certain way that creates a picture of people with some of these characteristics, then a stereotype is created. Take, for example, African Americans, who in the past have been identified as the personification of sexuality, lewdness, laziness, hostility, and dirtiness to name a few of the negative elements. For certain, one will find some of these elements in some individuals within the African American population. The stereotype, however, pictures all African Americans as having these character elements. The reason for these stereotypes has to do with discrimination and control. No one will usually identify himself as a stereotype unless he is entertaining or has little self-respect or pride, because the intent of the stereotype is to show disrespect and distance.

Again, in America, the European American set the standards for normalcy in society, so whenever someone other than a European American displays some of the so-called normal characteristics he or she is looked at as being different. In other words, being different means different from the stereotype of his ethnic groups. Take, for example, Barack Obama. If we were to list the stereotypical element used for African Americans, he does not display any of them. How can that be? Since he is African American he must be hiding some of these elements from the public so he can be considered different. Some uninformed people will say of his speech that “he’s trying to talk white.” Since he is educated and has a poised demeanor, he is accused of “acting white.”In essence, whenever anyone identified as an ethnic American falls out of the stereotypical image, he or she is not acting normal relative to his or her ethnic group.

Unfortunately, stereotypes have ruled the day in America for many years. Too many Americans have no idea of what America looks like without the stereotypes and that is why some Americans find it difficult to accept someone like Obama as president. Once, a few years ago, an African American male professor went into his department chairperson’s office for a performance evaluation. The chairperson was a European American female. She complimented him on his work and contributions to the university and department, then proceeded to give him an average review ranking. When the professor questioned her about the average review ranking, she mentioned to him that she grew up in a part of the country where “Negroes” were not considered average. He asked further, what that had to do with his performance. She replied that she had never been able to separate herself from that perception of “Negroes,” so; average was the best he could receive from her. This incident shows how stereotypes can affect individuals in negative ways and can be harmful to both the perceived and the perceiver

Fortunately, America is starting to change its perceptions of itself—no longer a society dominated by European American standards and values. Stereotypes have for too long been a veil over the eyes of too many citizens. That veil has been the cause of biases and discrimination against many American citizens. At times, the Government created stereotypical criteria used to set apart two ethnic groups, as in the case of the Japanese and Chinese during the time of Pearl Harbor. The objective was to present the Japanese as bad and evil, and the Chinese as loyal and good. This example is only one of many. If one cares to examine the history, examples of biases through stereotypes created against many ethnic Americans are readily available.

However, we as Americans need to be looking towards the future and seeking ways to eliminate the stereotypes. This elimination of stereotypes can be accomplished through education, observation, and experience. We have an excellent opportunity to set our sights in the right direction with the example of the Obama family in the White House. Our actions generally follow our thoughts, so if we look for the best in our citizenry instead of the negative stereotypes, chances are we will find it.


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