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.

Read more »