Stereotyping: The Danger of Misperception
So I was on the train one morning and I happened to see a young black man getting off with me and in my opinion he appeared ‘angry’. I initially thought, ‘I wonder what is going on with him?’ And then I happened to be see a white man right behind him and judged his appearance as ‘blank’, meaning no real emotion at all. Then I noticed that both men appeared to have the same facial expression or rather a lack of emotion of displayed. In this moment I realized that I was superimposing an emotion most commonly associated with young black males and in fact I was thinking in a prejudicial manner. Now being a black woman I am not of the mind that I am incapable of being racist or prejudicial to others simply because I am a member of a historically oppressed and marginalized group of people. But I definitely have to say that until this moment I didn’t think what ever prejudices I do have extended to judging a young man’s emotional state of mind when there was a completely different reality right in front of me.
And in realizing myself capable of this, I also realized in a way I never had before the power of stereotyping. We laugh at comedians who do jokes about how black people in the ‘hood speak, how white people sound nasally and high pitched, or how someone who appears like they are of middle eastern descent smells like curry, and the list of these types of jokes is exhaustive. There are even jokes about how young black males always appear to be ‘mean mugging’ (which is more than likely what informed my perception of this young man that particular morning), and everyone under the rainbow can relate in some way to these jokes because there are grains of truth in them, even though if you’re rational, educated, and balanced you also know there are many exceptions to these stereotypes and that ultimately you should judge a person or person(s) as individuals and not monolith representations of a group of people. However what this moment made clear to me is that even while believing yourself to be rational, you can still unwittingly apply these stereotypes in your daily life and incorporate them into how you perceive those around you and those perceptions can be completely without merit.
There is a real danger here and this moment let me know that I am no more immune to prejudicial thinking than someone of a racially or socioeconomically privileged status in society. I wouldn’t say that jokes like these shouldn’t be told because at its core comedy is about poking fun at our differences and illustrating how ridiculous it is to even think in these ways except ironically, because taking those stereotypes seriously would mark a person as small minded and bigoted. But the danger I speak of is that stereotyping can impact your mind and color or filter the experiences of your life and leave you with inaccurate assumptions. Personally I’m starting to inventory some of the commonly held notions I have about others to see if I’ve been mis-applying a stereotype on someone and not judging them on their own merits.
As a joke in The Onion once stated, “Thank god for stereotypes, I don’t have to think so much!” Stereotypes exist because the above line is true, it is much easier and way less emotionally and mentally taxing to find patterns in people’s behavior so you don’t have to think too much about how to treat them, perceive them, or what things you should do to protect yourself from others. Stereotypes about how people speak, behave, or even choices in personal appearance can give fair warning, there are times we would just assume not associate with someone because it’d be an emotionally taxing experience. For instance someone who seems to be kind of wild and loud, an introvert is likely to avoid them because it’d be an issue of personality compatibility. Stereotyping has a valid use, indeed we are literally wired this way to help us survive our lives. But in an integrated, technological, and modern world where differences in class, personality, ethnic heritage, and even life philosophies means the potential for constant novel and new experiences, having filtered views can cause real social injustice if your perceptions limit your openness and understanding. And this social injustice doesn’t need state or government sanction like Jim Crow or unbalanced sentencing practices, it can be as innocuous as judging a young man to be angry while riding the train to work.