Women, children, men; Arabs, Chinese, Americans; academics, craftsmen, bodybuilders; blond, black, ginger; beggars, rich people, refugees; gays, lesbians; businessmen, politicians, tech nerds; Muslims, Christians, Jews; foreigners, criminals and policemen.
What these groups of people or labels have in common is that they are often talked about as if individuals appertaining to them were all pretty much the same. We often hear statements or judgments about women (weakness, emotional nature), about politicians (liars, corrupt), about beggars (fake, lazy), bodybuilders (dumb machos) or Muslims (misogynistic, conservative). These are only a few examples of what we call stereotypes.
What are stereotypes?
According to Oxford, a stereotype is a widely held but fixed and oversimplified image or idea of a particular type of person or thing. Cambridge defines it as a set idea that people have about what someone or something is like, especially an idea that is wrong. Finally, the Merriam-Webster Dictionary suggests that stereotyping means believing unfairly that all people or things with a particular characteristic are the same. The following video clip of the American classical / hip-hop duo Black Violin illustrates the idea of stereotypes in a rather unexpected fashion:
At the end of the video, Kev Marcus states that:
‘I mean mine is clear – mine is really easy. My number one stereotype is…just because I’m six foot two, two hundred sixty pounds…doesn’t mean you’re supposed to be afraid of me. I feel like when I walk into an elevator and there’s like four or five, ya know, different other people in there. They’re thinking, “Hmm… Let’s see what this guy’s gonna do. Lemme double check.” Maybe they’re not afraid, but they’re on notice.’
At first sight, people would not expect Kevin to be a classical violinist. Classical music tending to be associated with upper class and harmlessness (again, stereotype) does not match the image of that guy who is big, strong and black; features that have the unfortunate effect of eliciting alertness and caution.
I am sure that many of us have gone through similar experiences. You could, for instance, easily find me walking on an empty street with dim light, wearing a hoodie that barely gives a glimpse of my face. Add to this that my face is bearded and dark and that my stature is athletic. I assume that you would not be surprised if the person crossing my path were to experience a noticeable acceleration of her pulse, her transpiration and if she were to strengthen the grip on her purse. But then we would walk past each other and, I can assure you, nothing happens. I am a friendly person, so I would usually give her a polite “good evening” and continue my way, which would make the physiological symptoms of alertness disappear shortly afterwards.
Do Stereotypes hold at least some truth?
Let’s take a closer look at the hoodie. The hoodie has come to be put in relation with danger and crime and is often attributed to one specific ethnicity. Hence, the question to investigate is whether the fact of wearing a hoodie is somehow correlated with dangerousness or criminal behaviour. Put otherwise, how likely is it that a random person wearing a hoodie is involved in some kind of criminal activity? (This question recalls the case of Martin Trayvon, who was shot by a man called George Zimmerman on the basis of the ‘Stand your Ground Law’ applicable in Texas, US in February 2012. Zimmerman claimed that Trayvon, who was wearing a hoodie, ‘looked suspicious’.)
From a theoretical perspective, it seems arguably logical to think that someone who wants to commit a crime, does not necessarily want to be punished for it. As a measure of precaution, that person would try to conceal his or her identity, and there a hoodie might come in handy. It covers a significant amount of the person’s face and restricts the number of angles from which surveillance cameras or witnesses could retrieve information about him or her. Combined with other items of clothing, it can significantly reduce the likelihood of the victim identifying the perpetrator with certainty.
Now, as we know, theory does not explain life and I have failed to find studies that prove this link between hoodies and criminal activities (although Ray (2015) discusses interesting aspects of the question). However, we can definitely agree that there are some criminals who have worn hoodies during their delinquent acts. Likewise, we can agree that there are definitely women who are weaker than their male counterparts, refugees who are violent, beggars who fake a handicap, bodybuilders who have low IQ’s etc. What makes stereotypes so tricky, is the fact that those overwhelmingly negative characteristics that are associated with the totality of a particular group, definitely apply to a portion of it.
What about those who do not match the stereotype?
On the other hand, we can equally accept the claim that there are refugees who are not violent, women who are stronger than men, bodybuilders who are not ‘dumb’ etc. Hence, if there is at least a significant amount of people who belong to a particular group or who fit a certain label and to whom the stereotype does not apply, the latter should be put into question, or even dismissed. Unfortunately, human beings do not always work according to such logical principles and there are sociological concepts that make an attempt at explaining why.
One of the mechanisms that hamper our ability to dismiss stereotypes even after meeting people who do not match them is the ultimate attribution error (Pettigrew, 1979), which postulates that negative attributes of individuals in a particular group tend to be seen as innate to their culture or race, whereas positive attributes are quickly downplayed as the results of factors external to them. For instance, if someone in Switzerland hears of a person of Albanian descent being involved in an incidence of physical violence, they will think that this negative attribute, i.e. violent behaviour, is innate to Albanians (a well-known stereotype in Switzerland). If the same person meets an Albanian who is a law-abiding citizen, friendly, non-violent, thus featuring positive characteristics, they will attribute those characteristics to the fact that this person went to school in Switzerland, that he has a high level of education etc., i.e. things that are external to the culture of Albanians.
Another psychological obstacle is cognitive dissonance (Festinger, 1957). Human beings like to be able to predict things and avoid surprises. Thus, they prefer their beliefs and stereotypes not to be shaken or proved wrong by events or interactions. Taking the above-mentioned example of that person crossing my path in the street, he or she is likely to dismiss her positive and uneventful interaction with me as ‘an exception to the rule’ and experience the very same symptoms of nervousness the next time she walks past a person looking exotic and wearing a hoodie.
One of the fundamental issues with stereotypes is that they lead to inhumane and unjust behaviour and negative feelings for both the victim and the perpetrator of stereotypes. When I was about 14 years old, I was in a grocery store collecting my purchased items. In that store, there are plastic bags at the end of the checkout (see image below).
A woman in front of me was packing up her items and she had put her purse next to her, close to the plastic bag roll. As I reached for the roll to take a plastic bag, she made a sudden move and grabbed her purse abruptly. Although in great surprise at her behaviour, I went on to rip off a plastic bag and started packing up my things.
Applying the stereotype of ‘young immigrants stealing’, she treated me as if I was a thief. I was obviously offended and, judging by the look on her face, after she realised I was just getting a plastic bag, I would deduce that she somehow felt ashamed as well. Since most people do not comply with the stereotype, applying it to a given person is more likely to produce an unsatisfactory situation where someone is treated unjustly and hurt as a result. If being ‘civilised’ implies being just and upright, then resorting to stereotypes in our interactions with fellow human beings – thereby essentially stripping them of their right to be human beings and not simply members of a group – is probably the wrong strategy to go for.
On our duty to defy stereotypes
A sociological phenomenon is always multi-faceted and its longevity can hardly be explained by the actions and the behaviour of one group of people. In that sense, the fact that stereotypes dominate so many of our social interactions cannot be solely due to the ‘stereotypers’, i.e. those who apply stereotypes to other people believed to be part of a particular group. There must be another dimension to it.
While it is certainly challenging and often scary to enter a human interaction without arming ourselves with stereotypes, it can be equally – if not more – difficult not to stereotype ourselves.
The day before my driving test, I was looking into the mirror and trying to decide how I should look and what I should wear for that important day. Although a driving test was meant to test your driving, according to the accounts of many who went before me, it also seemed to test the way you looked. So I shaved that beard I had been very proud of growing and put on a nice collar shirt. What I was trying to do went beyond merely preparing for a particular social situation. Rather, I was adopting a set of attributes that would alter my perceived affiliation. Shaving my beard would take me out of the group of ‘bearded people’ to whom, combined with characteristics of Arab descent, certain unfavourable stereotypes applied. Wanting to create optimal conditions for my test, I was willing to conceal part of who I was. Such a decision, apart from being an act of hypocrisy, had wider implications.
Showing up to the driving test with a beard would have constituted an opportunity for the examiner to experience a positive social interaction with a young Arab male wearing a beard. By removing this attribute, I deprived that person of this experience and I had no impact on a potential stereotype held by him or her against bearded Arabs.
Zooming out from this parochial example, similar types of decisions can be seen among a large part of the immigrant population to Western countries. Notwithstanding the benefits of integration and assimilation, I believe that there is a risk of ‘over-assimilation’ to an extent which equates to a severing of the ties to one’s cultural or ethnic origins. Growing up, all I wanted to be was Swiss and to be seen as belonging to Switzerland and not as Arab, Iraqi or simply foreign. In many ways, I and many others from various descents have achieved this aim, i.e. being considered ‘Swiss’. But we have managed to do so at a very high cost.
The cost is that we are no longer seen as representatives of our original group. In other words, we have surrendered our ability to defy stereotypes associated with them. By not being seen as Arab, it is unlikely that my achievements and positive attributes are perceived as those of Arabs. By not being seen as an immigrant, it is unlikely that I will be recalled as a positive example of an immigrant. By refusing to be a refugee, I am depriving the refugee population of good examples that could weaken the predominantly negative stereotypes surrounding them, thereby allowing isolated incidents of violence or harassment to continue nurturing their reputation.
My conviction is that we have a duty to defy stereotypes. Stereotypes are the vehicles of injustice, discrimination, xenophobia and hatred. By conforming to positive stereotypes, we are also perpetuating negative ones and enabling inhumane and unjust systems to persist.
In the aftermath of the Martin Trayvon shooting, Fox News host Geraldo Rivera urged the parents of Black and Latino youngsters not to allow them to go out wearing hoodies. What he suggested was to accept the stereotype that hoodie signifies danger and crime and that, in order not to be perceived as a criminal, one is supposed to not wear a hoodie. Thus, ‘not wearing a hoodie’ could be seen as a positive or neutral attribute. However, adhering to this belief, one is, by extension, reinforcing the belief that ‘wearing a hoodie’ is something negative and dangerous. My argument is that this is exactly what we should not be doing.
But how do we defy stereotypes?
As with many things, this is easier said than done. Put bluntly, it equates to adopting a negative stereotype and behaving in a way that does not comply with it. For instance, if enough law-abiding, friendly, helpful people wear hoodies and interact with other people, any person will very soon have had more interactions with hooded people who were not criminal than with hooded people who were (pretty much like this guy, Chris Beasley). Or, if enough studious, honest, courteous people who are well-versed in the culture and language of the recipient country show up as the immigrants who they truly are, the negative stereotypes about immigrants will eventually be dismantled.
I believe that there are tangible beneficial implications to adopting such a stereotype-defying posture. First of all, it destroys the stereotype itself. As insinuated above, the repetition of social interactions that involve people who fail to comply with a particular stereotype, will gradually raise questions around its validity and lead to its eventual decay.
Second, defying stereotypes opens the door for other people to live more freely. Stereotypes are restrictive, since many of us try to live our lives taking them into account. For instance, there is a widespread belief that men should not display ‘weakness’, be it in the form of emotional statements or tears. If, as a man, I decide to fully display my emotions, live with an open heart, cry in public when I feel like it, while having all the attributes of a strong man – physically, mentally, intellectually, psychologically – I am contradicting the belief that ‘strong men do not cry’ and thereby allowing other men to follow my example and make their contribution to the dismantlement of such a stereotype. In similar ways, Black Violin allows other young Afro-Americans to develop a passion for classical music, thereby defying the perception that classical music is uncool and reserved for the upper class.
Third, as mentioned above, in many places in the world, systems of injustice, indiscriminate hatred and violence are based on normative and stereotypical beliefs. Sexist attitudes towards women live off stereotypes such as ‘women are weak’, ‘women are driven by emotions’, ‘women are seductive’ etc. Xenophobia towards refugees in many European countries is based on widely held beliefs that those people are poor, criminal and misogynistic. On this last point, I would like to add an anecdote:
The other day, I was teaching teenagers a class on the refugee crisis in a secondary school in Switzerland. I asked them to discuss the repercussions of the heightened influx of refugees for Switzerland. I knew I was going out on a limb with this, but the very uncritical responses I received still came as a shock. They were overwhelmingly negative, involving statements such as ‘they are taking away our jobs’, ‘they treat women badly’, ‘they are poor and steal’, ‘they are uneducated’, ‘they are violent’, ‘they bring diseases’ and many more. Trying to make them aware of the uncritical manner in which they had completed the task – i.e. simply reverberating negative and superficial ideas provided by the media or their parents – I wrote the word ‘refugee’ on the blackboard and asked them to tell me what they saw when they used it. I wanted to know whether they had ‘real’ refugees in mind with whom they had interacted, since the school had absorbed many of the children who arrived in recent years and I was assuming that they would at least think of these kids when mentioning refugees. It turned out, however, that the majority of the class saw male adults, ‘black’ and ‘islamist’, when they thought of refugees. I then said that it is important to keep in mind that when we talk about refugees, we are talking about human beings and it was therefore vital to think about people we knew instead of the mere label of ‘refugees’.
Just before the bell rang, I told them: ‘I would like you to remember, next time you talk about ‘refugees’, that I, the person standing in front of you, am a refugee’.
Being a teacher and speaking their own language better than them, I did not fit into the stereotype they had mentioned minutes before. By allowing these teenagers to see me as a refugee, I was providing them with an example that contradicted the stereotypes they were continuously confronted with.
One last word
Taking on the uncomfortable, exhausting, frightening and tedious task of defying stereotypes is an audacious ask to make of anyone. In this process, we will find ourselves in situations where people look at us strangely, laugh at us and make us feel uncomfortable. We need to keep in mind, however, that the ultimate goal is to fight collectively against injustice, even if on many stages of our way we will be struggling on our own. What we will need during that struggle is faith in the ultimate prevalence of the good but also, and perhaps more importantly, courage. Courage to step out of our comfort zones and to keep going when it seems futile and courage to stand up for what most people stand against.
I wish you courage.