Stereotype and Seemingly Positive Stereotypes

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We have heard them all. African Americans are lazy and incompetent workers. Hispanics are all drug-dealers. The Irish are heavy drinkers. These are all stereotypes. Stereotyping is a problem that refuses to go away. It recurs, across various contexts and discourses, as a divisive and troubling issue, and remains a central source of contention in the politics of representation. Many stereotypes exist: different ones towards racial groups, women, the elderly, the mentally ill, fat people, homosexuals, the physically handicapped, and individuals with AIDS, to name just a few. Stereotypes can have negative outcomes both for the individuals who are the target of prejudice and for society at large.

Stereotypes are a set of beliefs about the personal attributes of a group of people. It was journalist Walter Lippman who first coined the term "stereotype" to refer to our beliefs about groups. He borrowed the term from the printing process in which a "stereotype" literally was a metal plate that made duplicate copies of a printed page. Lippman believed this term aptly describes how we continuously reproduce the "picture in our heads" that we have about a group whenever we encounter members of that group. In other words, Lippman recognized the human tendencies to categorize people into groups, and then to see individual members as a reflection of that group, rather than as the unique person they are.(Pickering, p.16-21)

Although stereotypes may be products of individual cognitive processes, they also maybe consensually shared within a society. Collectively held stereotypes may be especially pernicious as they are often widespread in a society, As an example of this important distinction between individual and collective stereotypes, suppose you are a member of Group X who has been denied employment because the employer assumes that your group is intellectually inferior to the dominant group. While this world undoubtedly be a frustrating experience for one, one may easily be able to find employment elsewhere. However, if this belief that your group is intellectually inferior is widely accepted within a society, finding employment may prove to be challenging. Thus, it is the widespread acceptance of particular stereotypic beliefs about a social group, rather than an individual's idiosyncratic beliefs about the group, that is more problematic.(Hecht, p.40-41)

Stereotypes can be both positive ("Asians are the model minority") and negative ones ("the Irish are heavy drinkers"). But even complimentary stereotypes are not as benign as they initially appear, because they are equally exaggerated generalizations. A person who accepts seemingly positive stereotypes as factual may be prone to readily accept the less positive ones as well (Stangor p.64-68). Nonetheless, if stereotypes represent inaccurate or distorted generalizations, why do they persist over time? For example, during the days of American slavery, Blacks were stereotyped as intellectual inferior, unevolved, primitive, and apelike. Beliefs about innate physical differences (i.e. Blacks are less sensitive to pain than Whites; Blacks have thicker skulls than Whites) and innate abilities (i.e. Blacks are innately more athletic and rhythmic than Whites) were commonplace among Whites in the United States and Europe during the 18th and 19th centuries. Sad to say, these stereotypes persist today. In a telephone survey of White and Black residents of central Connecticut in 1995, researchers S. Plous and Tyrone Williams found that the majority of respondents (58.9%) endorsed at least one stereotypical difference in inborn ability. Whites, for example, were most likely then Blacks to be viewed as superior in intellectual ability, whereas Blacks were more likely than whites to be viewed as superior in athletic and musical ability. Moreover, nearly half (49%) of those surveyed believed at least one stereotypical anatomical difference between Whites and Blacks: Almost one-third of...
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