A stereotype is a generalized statement or belief applied to everyone in a group, as though the entire group is the same. Any belief or characteristic, applied to an entire group, immediately makes it invalid because no characteristics are held by everyone in the group.
Stereotypical beliefs sometimes come from some degree of truth, however. There is probably someone in the group who fits the stereotype. The challenge is to acknowledge people as individuals without generalizing individual behaviors or characteristics. For example, a stereotype about African Americans is “Black people dance.” It is true that many African Americans are rhythmic. However, all African Americans do not have rhythm that matches the beat of the music played, and many people of other cultures do have rhythm.
Another stereotype is depicted in the movie, “White Men Can’t Jump”. The title poked fun at the stereotype about White men as though none of them could play basketball. Viewers of this movie had the opportunity to see that White men, can in fact jump.
There is no such thing as a “good” stereotype. All stereotypical beliefs led to inaccurate assumptions about individuals, whether the belief is a positive one or not. In the United States, there is a widely held belief that Asian children are smart, especially in mathematics and science. It is true that many Asian American children test well in these subjects. However, they were not born smarter than other people. Their ability, as it relates to these two subjects, is a result of their environment. All Asian Americans are not highly intelligent or skilled in these areas, although many have grown up in a home environment that strongly supports education. In Malcolm Gladwell’s book, Outliers there is a reasonable explanation for this phenomenon that has to do with linguistics and math. (See Outliers chapter 8) Here is an example of how even a “good” stereotype can be damaging.
Imagine you are observing a third-grade class. The class is composed of White children except for three. One male child is a Latino. Another male child is an African American, and the third child of difference is a Chinese American female.
The teacher is someone parents are delighted to have in the school system. He is the type of individual that goes out of his way to help his students excel. He truly loves each child, spends his own money for additional resources, stays after school, and comes in early to be available to assist students in any way he can. In other words, his intentions are good. However, he is not aware of his own stereotypes. Therefore, he is not aware of how those stereotypes impact his behavior.
It’s September, thus he does not yet know his students individually very well. As he plans his lesson, the teacher begins to determine which students he may need to spend additional time with in order that they too can perform well. He’s going to teach long division. Which students do you think he will most likely conclude need additional assistance, even if they have done nothing yet to indicate a need for help?
The next day he goes into class, teaches long division, and then distributes math problems to each student. He immediately walks over to the African American little boy. Now, remember, his intentions are good ones. He wants to help. Is it possible the African American male is doing well? Of course, yes, it is possible. Is it likely that this young student will, in some way, let the teacher know that he does not need help? That behavior is most unlikely. The teacher then walks over to the Latino student. Is it possible he too needs no assistance? It is unlikely that he will tell the teacher he does not need help.
The teacher never walks over to the Chinese American little girl, even though another stereotype in the United States is girls do not perform as well as boys in math and science. In this case the ethnic stereotype is stronger than the gender stereotype. Is it possible that the Chinese American girl does need help? Of course, the answer is yes. Is it likely she will ask for help? Most likely, no. Even at eight years old, in the third grade, she probably knows from messages around her, in comic strips, from adults, and from peers, that she is supposed to be a good math student. Additionally, she may have learned from her culture never to ask a person in authority a question in public. This would imply that the person in authority was not clear, and could cause the authority figure to possibly “lose face.”
Which students has the teacher’s behavior impacted? I hope you would agree that all of the students, not just those three, have been negatively impacted. Certainly there would be some White children who do need help. The teacher neglected them, while the African American and the Latino received unnecessary attention, which could have sent the wrong message to the other students.
As the children go to the playground, the teacher’s behavior could now impact their behavior toward each other. Some students might assume that the Latino and the African American are teacher’s pets, and start a fight with them. Other students might assume that the Latino and African American must be slow learners because they get so much attention, and start a fight with them.
If they continue to see the same or similar messages acted out, that teacher’s behavior could impact students behavior later in life, when working with people who are ethnically different than they are.
It is impossible to get rid of stereotypes entirely. The best we can do is become more aware of our own stereotypes. This way we can become more aware of how our stereotypes impact our behavior. It takes a courage to challenge assumptions and stereotypes. Join me in striving to be the example we want to see in the world.
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