Stereotypes and Me

… Since I've broken my blog (damn you, Internal Server Error!) and am waiting for my host's technical support to swoop in and save the day, I'm going to take some time to address the challenge issued by RaceChangers in which we are invited to reflect on how we stereotype in our day-to-day lives.

Reflect by answering the following questions in writing:

  • Was there a time that you made a generalization and were proved wrong?
  • Do you find yourself subscribing to any stereotypes now?
  • If you do find yourself giving in to any stereotypes, why do you think you believe them to be true?
  • Can you point to any instances where the stereotype does not hold true?

Do I make generalizations? Damn skippy, I do. And I bet you do, too.

Back in this Social Psychology class I took in undergraduate, even though I was a piss-poor student in this class, I was challenged to consider the basic processes of thinking and communicating that make up the complex art of thinking. Although humans boast one of the largest and most complex brains of animals on this planet, we are still inundated, day-in-and-day-out with lots of cacophonous stimuli, out of which we must filter some form of meaning.

The visual stimuli, alone, that we receive are simply so vast that we couldn't spend all of our time pondering what we see until at least we identify the thing we're looking at based upon all possible criteria that might affect our decisions. This would be evolutionarily unsound — as cavemen being chased by sabre-toothed tigers, natural selection selected out those silly creatures who needed to consider the information more closely before deciding that the tiger was a tiger. Instead, what we have come up with is a process of generalizations in which we take some of the most superficial information we can find, that seems to largely fit our perception of a meaning, and quickly judge our surroundings based on those criteria. For example, we need only glance at a car, note its four tires, general metallic appearance, windows, and general shape to identify it as a car and not, say, a train. We don't need to look under the hood to be sure that it's running on car-parts and not train-parts.

No place is this more evident than in young kids, who have yet to create the generalizations upon which we rely. Their generalizations are instead faulty, and based upon their limited experiences. A toddler might see a dog for a first time and be taught that it is a dog. The toddler will codify the dog's fur, four legs, busy legs and ears and call it a dog. Now, face the toddler with a cat, and based upon the same generalization that allowed the toddler to recognize a dog, it will call the cat a dog, until we interject and correct the generalization to one that is more appropriate and precise.

In adulthood, we depend upon our generalizations to survive the day, and to understand our environment in a timely and reasonable manner. When it comes to racial matters, we use generalizations to understand race: a person with dark skin is recognized as an African American, a person with slanted eyes and yellow-tinted skin is recognized as an Asian American. This is why I distrust anyone who claims to be colorblind: it is impossible to not see skin colour and to interpret it as such, unless you are some new, unique breed of human (in which case your brain needs to be studied in closer detail, since you seem to have achieved an evolutionary feat that generations of our species have not).

That all being said, that doesn't excuse racial generalizations as acceptable, particularly when they are imprecise or hateful. I don't begrudge someone seeing me and judging me to be of Asian descent, but it is when my Asian descent participates in another generalization that renders me book-smarts-not-street-smarts, overly-sexualized, kung-fu fighter, green-tea drinker or some other stereotype when things go awry.

The problems here are precision and consequences. Are most Asians yellow-tinted or brown-tinted with slanted eyes? If we're talking East Asian, predominantly yes. However, most Asians are not martial artists or sexual stereotypes, so the generalization is imprecise.

Furthermore, we are not cavemen running from sabre-toothed tigers anymore. Though nature might demand that we continue to generalize, this does not justify the use of generalizations to unfairly marginalize or disenfranchise a group of people based on one's own stereotypes. We have simply created a more civilized society than that, one in which everybody is entitled to certain basic human dignities — including individualism and humanity. It's not difficult to see how a stereotype easily robs a person of those basic tenets, rendering them faceless and mute.

So, back to the original question: do I make generalizations? Absolutely. I've made race-based generalizations that include the assumption that people of a certain race will sympathize with race activism or be more likely to subscribe to one point of view over another. I've made gender-based generalizations that cause me to believe (wrongly) that women will inherently understand and agree with feminism. I've made age-based generalizations that cause me to be startled when entering a class in which I am seated next to a student older than 30. I've generalized that political conservatives are full of shit.

Am I frequently wrong? Except for that very last one, you bet. (Just joking, you crazy right-wingers, just joking! You know I love you, too!)

And, though I struggle not to let my generalizations become a full-blown stereotype than can affect the way I treat others, it's an inevitably uphill journey to constantly challenge my generalizations.

However, it's also an ongoing struggle which I believe we all should embrace. The problem of racism and stereotyping is not aided by hiding one's head in the sand when confronted with thorny problems that call to question one's own morality; instead, racism and stereotyping should be treated as a reason to remain cognizant of race relations issues, and a chance to realize that we are all fully capable of being in the wrong, and there's no real right answer.

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