A stereotype is a picture you have in your head about people who belong to a certain race, religion, country or whatever. For example, “Asians work hard”, “Black women are loud-mouths”, “Rich people are stuck up” and so on.
Stereotypes are mostly applied to the sorts of people you barely know. Because if you knew them well enough you would know that the stereotypes are somewhere between useless and wrong.
White Americans, for example, know that not all whites are the same. There are all kinds. But they do not see that blacks and Asians are also like that, that they have all kinds too. Instead whites stereotype them and think they are all alike because of their race: blacks are like this, Asians are like that.
Because stereotypes are spread through education, television and so on, because they are almost the air you breathe, sometimes you even believe the stereotypes about your own kind. Like some black men believe that black women are hard to get along with.
Stereotypes work by confirmation bias, what I call the Texas Cowboy Hat Effect. If you do not live in Texas you might think plenty of people there wear cowboy hats. And if you go to Texas you will notice the one or two who do wear cowboy hats and forget about the hundreds and thousands who do not.
No matter what the stereotype is, there will always be people who fit it. There are loud-mouthed black women, there are stuck-up rich people, there are hard-working Asians. But these people get remembered because they fit the stereotype and the others are forgotten: the quiet black women, the drunken Asians, the down-to-earth rich people. And so on.
Some think that stereotypes are a well-meaning but imperfect attempt to understand others. Well, no. It is much worse than that, at least when it comes to race in America.
Every stereotype that I have looked into has an ugly little secret that it is hiding, even the ones that sound good and seem to have some truth to them.
The Aunt Jemima or Mammy stereotype about black women, for example. It is dying out now but it was the main way white Americans thought of black women in the early 1900s. It pictures black women as fat, dark-skinned, ugly, middle-aged, happy and white-people-loving. This stereotype started in the early 1800s at a time when black household slaves were in fact just the opposite of all this: thin, light-skinned, pretty, young, unhappy and white-people-hating. And raped repeatedly. The Mammy stereotype started out as a huge lie to hide what was going on.
Most stereotypes about race in America are the same way: they are not so much about blacks or Asians as an attempt to hide an uncomfortable truth about whites from themselves.
Stereotypes allow whites to feel good about themselves and remain blind to their own racism – even though the stereotypes are themselves racist!
- confirmation bias
- Race in America
- Stereotypes about black women
- Stereotypes about black men:
- Stereotypes about white women
- Stereotypes about Asians: