Paul R. Lehman,Stereotypes typically underestimate people’s individual differences

February 26, 2012 at 1:02 pm | Posted in American Bigotry, American Racism, blacks, Disrespect, equality, Ethnicity in America, Media and Race, Prejudice, President Obama, whites | 1 Comment
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One of the things that stood out to me during the broadcast of the Whitney Houston “Going Home” celebration was the misconception that African Americans are a monolith, that they do everything exactly the same way. Common sense and simple logic will tell us that an individual’s color or ethnicity is not an indicator of that person’s social, economic, educational, or religious status. So why is it that this assumption continues in America? The answer lies in ethnic stereotypes. Generally, no one is immune from stereotypes. Some stereotypes are positive, but most are negative and in many cases form the bases of prejudice. They are created by omitting or distorting information about groups of people, usually ethnic groups.

One of the current concerns in the news today involves the Asian American New York Nick’s basketball player, Jeremy Lin. In recent weeks, Lin has been the talk of the country because his demonstrated talents and skills in basketball at the professional level. As an Asian American professional basketball player he looks like a fish out of water because he represents an anomaly–less than one percent of professional basketball players are Asian American. Lin does not fit the stereotype of Asian American males, so he stands out. Lin has been the recipient of some ethnic slurs because some Americans do not feel comfortable with seeing some ethnic individuals out of their stereotype.

Another example of an individual not reflecting the ethnic stereotypical conception is President Obama. From his first day in the office President Obama has had to deal with people who reject the idea that he is the President. In essence, according to some people, he does not belong in this position because the stereotypes suggest he could not qualify. The problem of not belonging does not lie with the individual, but with the stereotype and the people who subscribe to it.

The problem with stereotypes is that they create false impressions of people, but suggest those impressions are the truth. In some cases, the people being stereotyped will help to promote it if there is a reward in it for them. For example, if groups of ethnically diverse teenage male basketball players are being selected for teams, not counting height, the chances are the African American males will be among the first picked because of the stereotype that says most African American males are good basketball players. If those groups of teenagers were being selected for some science project, chances are the Asian Americans would be among the first picked for the same reason—stereotypes.

Using stereotypes to characterize ethnic groups is disingenuous because we know that one size does not fit all. Yet, they are used as if based in truth and fact. For example, skin color is often used as an indicator of intellect, physical, artistic, and sexual temperament, which also seems to justify the treatment of the people being stereotyped. If nothing is done to disturb, interrupt, or dispel the myths, then they will be perceived as acceptable. Hence, my concern relative to the Houston “Home Coming” telecast.

Were it left to the judgment of many of the journalists reporting on the telecast, the impression a viewer would receive is that all African American people experience the same kind of “celebration” as did Whitney. The suggestion was that all African Americans belong to the same religious organization and all worship the same way. In other words, if one happens to be an African American, he or she must belong to the same religion as all other African Americans. To prevent this type of misunderstanding and misinformation from being promoted, a concerted effort must be made to underscore the fact that just because some people share the same ethnic identity, it does not mean that they share everything else. In many instances, they share very little, depending on their economic, educational, and political status.

When people are stereotyped they lose their uniqueness and are forced to blend in with a group that is usually viewed as unflattering to the person making the stereotypical accusation. Usually, the person making the stereotypical comment is not of the same ethnic group as the subject being stereotyped. By making such a statement, the speaker probably feels a sense of superiority over the subject as well as secure and protected. In American every ethnic group has some negative stereotypical elements associated with their identity. In years past, finding a common distinction or contrast applicable to specific ethnic groups was fairly easy; today, with the continued diversity of America’s population, using an ethnic slur or a stereotypical element to denigrate someone is more difficult.

Stereotypes nevertheless are based on prejudices, and according to Beverly Daniel Tatum, author of the essay, “Can We Talk?” “Prejudice is one of the inescapable consequences of living in a racist [bigoted] society. Cultural racism [bigotry]—the cultural images and messages that affirm the assumed superiority of the Whites [European Americans] and the assumed inferiority of people of color—is like smog in the air. Sometimes it is so thick it is visible, other times it is less apparent, but always, day in and day out, we are breathing it in.”We should not be surprised by the frequent and often subtle ethnic remarks by people in public positions who forget that America is an ethnically diverse society.

Today, we need look no further than the words and actions of President Obama’s critics to recognize how stereotypes and prejudice works. In the eyes of his critics, Obama can do nothing correct, because according to the stereotypes believed by his critics, as an African American, he is supposed to be lazy, ignorant, and intellectually incompetent. Since in reality he is none of these things, either their beliefs are wrong, or they are not superior to him. Since they cannot accept his being equal to or superior to them, they must find ways to discredit him. Hence, they attack.

Many Americans are experiencing a challenging time today trying to retain their sense of advantage, power, and privilege based on the color of their skin and the myths that go along with it. Because of America’s growing diversity, they have to apply more balm on their wounded self-concept. They realize that they are in trouble because the wound continues to grow; still they fight. What they need to learn is that the end of the road does not mean death and destruction, but simply a new avenue of approach. No one likes being stereotyped, even bigots.


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  1. What’s interesting is the double edged sword you reference. If the stereotype is embedded in something that appears to be positive or complimentary, the subject is all too often likely to embrace it. And if stereotyping was to suddenly become illegal a great number of so called comedians would suddenly become criminals or unemployed.

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