Point Stereotyping Reality
by parker cronin
Counterpoint The Reality of Stereotypes
by Michael Bloom
Stereotypes are not only harmful to the people they directly describe but they are also damaging to all who propagate them. Above all, stereotypes are created with bad intentions. The most prominent stereotypes (connecting Jews with greediness, women with poor driving, and gay men with a high pitched voice) were all created with a conscious aim: to denigrate, shame and suppress. This makes stereotyping a rallying cry for those who wish to wage war against a specific demographic. Consider how many racist anti-immigration groups come together under the misconception that immigrants are lazy and only burden society. Anti-gay groups employ a similar approach by labeling all gay people as morally bankrupt and debauched, and then use these stereotypes to support their otherwise faulty positions.
Let’s make one thing perfectly clear: stereotypes are simply not accurate. I’m sure that most readers will agree without much second thought, but it is still important to remind ourselves that no one fits perfectly into the mold that society would like to assign them based on their identity. Not all lesbians are butch, not all Muslims are terrorists, and not all black people enjoy fried chicken; but people who organize their worlds in terms of these stereotypes act as if these descriptions are accurate.
First impressions are important. When you meet someone for the first time, stereotypes can prefigure your perception of her even before she has a chance to make an accurate impression. Social relations that could have been fruitful will be closed off. If you think that a Mexican person is lazy, then everything they do will only work to confirm that idea. Regardless of how hard that person works, your image of them-warped by a stereotype-will prevent you from ever seeing that person in a positive light. This disrupts the formation of what could be a meaningful relationship. Presuming that your Asian friend is good at math simply because she is Asian not only insults her but can also lead to awkward situations and the foreclosure of what might have been an otherwise fruitful friendship.
There are further consequences when the group perceived as inferior actually begins to accept stereotypes as a reality. This process pushes some members of a group to conform to the negative stereotype, while those who refuse to accept the stereotype become excluded from the group. If gay men are taught to believe certain stereotypes about themselves and accept the very notion of a homogenous group, then they are likely to look down on anyone who does not fit within this imagined group. Stereotypes create exclusionary cliques that actively preclude people from forming connections with each other. On the surface stereotypes would seem to build a community, but in fact they achieve the opposite. A community is about forming bonds with similar and dissimilar people. Stereotypes, however, prevent crucial dissimilar relationships that stifle diversity. It is this diversity, the ability to share and learn from a radically different perspective than your own, that makes a community worthwhile. A community, even at the University of Michigan, requires individuals to accept those who are outside of their imagined stereotypes.
Stereotypes can also have real effects on an individual’s actions. When people are forming their own identities, they often look to constructed group norms as a guide. When I was coming to terms with my sexuality, I was unsure how to act as an openly gay person. At first, I thought it would be a good idea to act out the stereotype, with effeminate hand motions, a higher voice, a catty disposition, and so on. But it was not authentic; it did not capture who I was. The pressure to conform to a certain identity has cookie-cutter effects. People feel pressured to act like each other, adopting stereotypes and erasing individuality. Identity categories do not exist independently but rather intersect with other such categories. We are multifaceted beings and define ourselves along a variety of dimensions: age, sex, race, religion, and so on. When people accept an identity based on stereotypes, they preclude the possibility of thinking of themselves in different ways. Someone who identifies primarily as gay, for instance, seriously hinders his ability to reflect on and realize the racial, gender, national, and class components of his identity.
We’ve all heard the occasional racist joke, the offhand gay slur. Comedians use them all the time, and they work. People laugh. Sometimes making light of prejudice and not taking your own identity too seriously is a good thing. But is this benefit greater than the costs of accepting stereotypes as reality? To those who are the targets, it might not be too funny. It is hurtful when we make fun of someone for being lazy because she is Mexican or when we derisively label an effeminate man as gay. These and countless other instances of prejudicial humor and behavior are not simply innocent words that dissolve as soon as they are spoken. They have power, and they serve to perpetuate a system of stereotypes that harms everyone, marginalized and privileged alike.
Sometimes there’s no denying it: stereotypes exist. Generalizations about groups of people are bound to persist, even in the face of obvious fallacy. Racial slurs, radical hate and other forms of prejudice prey on common and stereotyped traits. But the simple existence of stereotypes is not the cause of hatred and strife; these problems arise when people latch on to those stereotypes and treat them as if they were completely true. Only by acknowledging the reality and inevitability of stereotypes can we begin breaking down the negative connotations associated with different generalizations we view as offensive.
At some point in your life, you have probably experienced some form of prejudice. As a Jew growing up in Iowa, one of the least diverse states in the country, I remember being asked by a peer in elementary school where my money pouch was. Eight-year-old me was shocked and hurt, but my classmate didn’t know any better at the time. Because I continued to associate with all the other second graders instead of withdrawing from the system that produced such ignorant prejudice, my class learned something about Judaism, and I learned about collective ignorance of a religion and culture I was born into.
Identity construction and politics pervade most modes of social interactions. There will always be an attempt to group people based on similar characteristics. While there is the occasional lone wolf, grouping like persons is in our nature. People want to associate themselves with others because they realize that cooperation yields greater benefits than individual action alone. In government, there are interest groups, congressional caucuses, and voting blocs which band together individuals in order to affect policy in an advantageous and effective manner. But it is also helpful to understand similar peoples and cultures as one. For example, it is easier to group the quirky Residential College students as colloquially “East Quad Kids” than try to describe all the traits and characteristics that each of them individually may or may not possess.
As history shows, while stereotypes can certainly be offensive, they don’t always have to be. Identities are appropriated and redefined all the time. The LGBTQ movement took back the word “queer” as a method of empowerment. The American revolutionaries reclaimed the term “Yankee” from the British . And, as legend has it, Michigan is the Wolverine State because Ohioans claimed that Michiganders were scroungy and dirty, like a wolverine. (Of course, it also helps that there used to be a tons of the small woodland creatures crawling around the state.)
Identity politics are inevitable. Group membership must be defined by some criterion—whether it be gender, sex, race, religion, disability, age or belief—but such criteria also establishes who is excluded from the group just as much as they define who is included. This is part of the way we think, and it impacts even the most innocuous situations. If a handful of people in a room wear blue clothes, this creates an in-group that necessarily excludes everyone wearing green, red, yellow and every other color that is not blue.
We shouldn’t be afraid of stereotypes, and in some cases, it may even be productive to embrace them. The Pursuit of Jappiness recently took the University of Michigan by storm, and when I first saw it posted on Facebook, it only had a couple hundred views. Within hours, the YouTube video’s hits skyrocketed from three to four digits. There was some outrage over the video, and, sure, maybe even a couple parts were offensive. But it should be okay to laugh. Stereotypes have to start somewhere and are often based on a grain of truth. I do not think anyone would try to argue that it is uncommon to see a girl on campus wearing a North Face, Ray Bans and Uggs sending a BBM—as they describe in the song—while walking across the Diag. Although the video portrays the average Jew at Michigan as a spoiled rich kid entrenched in Greek life from the outskirts of New York, that clearly doesn’t describe everyone at the University of Michigan, not even every Jew or New Yorker. Even if some of us fall into one or more of those categories, not everyone is the same. Even if the stereotypes the video portrays were true, none of the traits it describes are necessarily bad. So why not embrace them?
I was taught growing up that all generalizations are false (except this one). To make any totalizing statement about a group is bound to anger some and mischaracterize others. But that doesn’t mean that we can’t use satire to criticize the ignorance or discrimination that marginalized or oppressed groups face regularly. There are certainly instances of satire, like most Holocaust jokes, that cross a line and rightly offend people. Only by examining why stereotypes are offensive can we begin to understand why they exist and how we can use that knowledge to fight against ignorance and prejudice.
About the Issue
Point author: parker cronin is a junior at the University of Michigan majoring in History and Anthropology. He one day plans on becoming a lofty member of the academy by studying the history of history.
Counterpoint author: Michael Bloom is a sophomore History major from Iowa City, Iowa. He is also a member of University of Michigan’s Debate Team.
Edited by: Aaron Bekemeyer and Michael Guisinger
Cover by: Meirav Gebler