The problem of stereotypes

by Emrys Westacott

ImagesThe word “stereotype” has decidedly negative connotations. Indeed, it is often used as shorthand for “negative stereotype,” “false stereotype,” or “prejudiced stereotype.” Some dictionaries even define it as an unfair or oversimplified generalization about a particular group of people. Yet stereotypes can be positive. Asians have been stereotyped as hardworking; Brits as unflappable in a crisis; and Toyotas as reliable. And stereotypes can also be neutral, as when we assume Brazilians as more interested in soccer than Alaskans, or presuppose that middle-aged white men from Tennessee will probably prefer country music to hip hop.

Stereotyping was originally a process used in printing. A “stereotype” was a metal plate made from a plaster-of-paris mould and used to print an entire page of text. Printing this way replaced printing from individual letters held together in lines, and made it much easier to reprint a successful book. Real stereotypes made of metal have, of course, been thrown into the dustbin of history by advances in technology. All we have now is the concept, a metaphorical extension of the term's original meaning. We use a stereotype in our thinking whenever we assume that qualities often associated with a certain class of people or things will be found in some particular instance that we encounter. And this is something we all do all the time. I select a cantaloupe at the grocery store by presuming that if it looks healthy on the outside it won't be rotten on the inside. I see a converted railway carriage with a red neon sign over the door that reads “Joe's Cafe”, and I assume this is a place where I can probably buy a BLT sandwich but will not find sweet potato gaufrettes with duck confit on the menu.

In any such instance, we could, of course be wrong. The cantaloupe may be rotten. Joe's Cafe may be a gourmet French restaurant sporting a humble exterior as a humorous, postmodern gesture. But we can't stop using stereotypes in our thinking. For one thing, it's a process that has been ingrained in us by evolution. Early humanoids who didn't stereotype sabretoothed tigers as dangerous got selected out. For another thing, it's just too useful. The fact that we are sometimes mistaken in our assumptions does not disprove this. To be useful, and reasonable, an inference only needs to be probable; it doesn't need to be certain.

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How not to accuse someone of prejudice

by Emrys Westacott

Ob_fdeef4_capture-d-ecran-2013-04-15-a-12-45-1A colleague recently responded to a memo I circulated by telling me they considered it unintentionally heterosexist. I didn't agree. After a brief exchange of e-mails that served only to sandpaper each other's sore spots, my colleague called my attention to the following passage in Allen Johnson's book Privilege, Power, and Difference:

If someone confronts you with your own behavior that supports privilege, step off the path of least resistance that encourages you to defend and deny. Don't tell them they're too sensitive or need a better sense of humor . . . Listen to what's being said. Take it seriously. Assume for the time being it's true, because given the power of paths of least resistance, it probably is.[1]

The passage is well-intended and, up to a point, reasonable. But it should also be read with caution, since I believe it can easily encourage fallacious thinking and thereby harm the very cause it hopes to advance—a cause with which I fully sympathize. Of course, the tenor of the passage is to encourage a self-critical attitude, and we're all in favor of that. But the same kind of reasoning could also be used to fend off the advice being given. After all, one can easily rewrite the passage to put the boot on the other foot:

If someone tells you you're being hypersensitive or unreasonable, step off the path of least resistance that encourages you to defend and deny. Don't tell them their behavior supports privilege. Listen to what's being said. Take it seriously. Assume for the time being it's true, because given the power of the paths of least resistance, it probably is.

As my colleague and I found, navigating these shoals in our everyday interactions, achieving the proper admixture of knowledge, understanding, self-awareness, sensitivity, and reason, can be difficult. Still, I believe that in our attempts to manage this, it is important that we recognize and respect basic logical parameters. If we fail to do this, we do our cause a disservice.

In discussions of sexism, racism, heterosexism, heteronormativism, and other forms of prejudice, I have sometimes encountered two particular forms of specious reasoning. I will label these the appeal to subjective response and the accusation of privilege. My purpose here is simply to explain what these are and what is wrong with them.

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