Fun (maybe not so much) with stereotypes

by Kristin on September 30, 2008

in Culture, ideas & paradigms

I’ve been having fun with stereotypes lately. One of my higher ed clients has been working with a design concept that centers on cartoon-like college student characters. In last year’s marketing materials, the characters said random things in talk bubbles. This year, they’ve brought me into the project to develop actual personae and story lines.

The whole point is for students to look at the characters and say “Oh yeah, I know that dude, the one who has his entire life planned out on a spread sheet,” or “That bubbly, happy, positive-thinker chick sounds exactly like my roommate last year.”

Stereotypes can be useful. By making generalizations and exaggerating characteristics, we can bring humor and even clarity to our complex society and world. Marketing professionals who create branding rely on stereotypes to understand core audience traits, desires and motivations. We often actually develop stereotypical characters to keep in mind as we’re creating ads and websites.

But stereotypes are clearly dangerous, too. We all know that. In my town, people have been fiercely debating the Fighting Illini mascot, Chief Illiniwek, for two decades. Even though the Chief mascot was officially retired in February 2007, I still see students every day wearing Chief sweatshirts, and I drive behind cars (most often gas guzzlers, ahem) brandishing Chief stickers (next to the Bush ’04 stickers, of course).

I personally became passionate about the debate four years ago, upon running into my close friends with their sweet new baby at the farmers’ market. Their stroller had a “Racial Stereotypes Dehumanize” sticker on it, complete with the Chief logo. The baby—now a bright, articulate preschooler who calls me Auntie Kristin—is African American. The thought of anyone dehumanizing her makes my blood boil. Although I already identified myself as “anti-Chief,” I suddenly saw the whole issue in a new light.

Jason and I are committed, both through example and direct conversation, to making sure our three girls understand the world without racial stereotypes. Our community includes friends from a wide variety of backgrounds. When they frequent our home and dinner table, our kids learn something about sameness and difference, even if indirectly. We also actively promote family conversations on the subject. Our kids know why we are against the Chief. They know that many people in our country are vehemently opposed to the idea of a black President. They can converse about these things.

But last night, I came face to face with my own brand of stereotyping. Not the sort I do in my work, but the kind I do in my head and in conversation, without even thinking. The kind I do when I connect Republicans to slick, oversized pickup trucks, to the Chief, to…. You get the picture. Anyway, we were having a conversation with our friend Ahbleza, from church. She’s a student at the university, and one of our girls’ favorite babysitters—she’s kind, smart, generous and fun. She’s also a super talented soccer player, and this fall she’s been giving S lessons on Monday afternoons. Last night we invited her to stay and eat with us.

Ahbleza was telling the girls she was born in Chicago. “The city?” Jason asked. He was born in the city, and people from Chicago tend to be sensitive about The City versus The Suburbs. Particularly the West Suburbs, where a large percentage of U of I undergraduates are from. I made a joke about how you can spot kids from the West Suburbs a mile away. It’s a common joke in town, particularly among our many friends who teach at the university.

Ahbleza didn’t laugh, or even smile. Instead, she asked “What do you mean?”

“You know, the upper-middle class privileged kid who loves going to the mall and to chain restaurants. The sorority girls who look like everyone else in the sorority and everyone they went to high school with,” I said, trailing off rather lamely. What did I mean? And what would my daughters understand it to mean?

It’s true that stereotypes are more harmful when they’re directed toward the underprivileged and those who are in some way a minority. But suddenly I saw this clearly: Stereotyping isn’t just about who is being profiled, it’s about the act of lumping anyone into a group—particularly someone you don’t even know.

And I felt pretty stupid that I hadn’t thought about it in quite that way before. Everyone is unique, and has the capacity to surprise. Thankfully, each person will somehow step outside of the lines you try to draw around them. And we all have a lot to learn. Thanks, Ahbleza, for the gentle reminder.


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  • Ahbleza

    I’ve trying to think of a comment to post, but nothing significant has come to me. I ran across this today; perhaps it can be seen as relevant?

    By Theodore Dalrymple

    There is a fashion these days for apologies: not apologies for the things that one has actually done oneself (that kind of apology is as difficult to make and as unfashionable as ever), but for public apologies by politicians for the crimes and misdemeanours of their ancestors, or at least of their predecessors. I think it is reasonable to call this pattern of political breast-beating the False Apology Syndrome.

    Mr. Blair, the then British prime minister, apologized to the Irish for the famine; one of the first public acts of Mr. Rudd, the Australian prime minister, was to apologize to the Aborigines for the dispossession of their continent; Pope John Paul II apologized to the Muslims for the Crusades. There are many other examples, and there are also demands for apologies by aggrieved, or supposedly aggrieved, groups.

    What is this all about, and what does it signify? Does it mean that at long last the powerful are making a genuine effort to see things from the point of view of the weak, or is it, on the contrary, a form of moral exhibitionism that subverts genuine moral thought and conduct?

    Let us examine briefly the apology for the Crusades as an example of the whole genre. It is not exactly a new discovery that the Crusaders often, perhaps usually or even always, behaved very badly. It is not in the nature of invading armies to behave well, even when discipline is strong, morale is high, and control of the foot soldiers is firm; it is no secret that these conditions did not exist during the Crusades, to put it rather mildly.

    They were, however, rather a long time ago. The Crusades were an attempt to recover for Christendom what had been lost by force, with all the accompanying massacre, pillage, and oppression that the use of force in those days implied. No one, I think, expects an apology from present-day Arabs for the imperialism of their ancestors, either as a matter of moral duty or political likelihood. We are all born into the world as we find it, after all; we are not responsible for what went before us.

    Of course, we may take pride in the culture and achievements of our biological or political ancestors — indeed such pride is necessary for the preservation and development of any civilization — in which case it is only right and proper that we should also face up squarely to the less glorious aspects of our heritage. But this is a matter for genuine historical scholarship and moral reflection of the kind that leads to a determination never to repeat the crimes, not for sound-bite sloganeering. The world would be a better place if academics in the Islamic world faced up to the fact (and were free to face up to the fact) that their religion does not have a peaceful historical record, just as the world has become a better place because the Germans have acknowledged the recent historical record of their country. If large numbers of Germans, including their leaders, started to say that Germany is what it has always been, namely a land of peace, the rest of the world would have good cause to tremble.

    But official apologies for distant events, however important or pregnant with consequences those events may have been, are another matter entirely. They have bad effects on both those who give them and those who receive them.

    The effect on the givers is the creation of a state of spiritual pride. Insofar as the person offering the apology is doing what no one has done before him, he is likely to consider himself the moral superior of his predecessors. He alone has had the moral insight and courage to apologize.

    On the other hand, he knows full well that he has absolutely no personal moral responsibility for whatever it is that he is apologizing for. In other words, his apology brings him all kudos and no pain.

    This inevitably leads to the false supposition that the moral life can be lived without the pain of self-examination. The locus of moral concern becomes what others do or have done, not what one does oneself. And a good deed in the form of an apology in public for some heinous wrong in the distant past gives the person who makes it a kind of moral capital, at least in his own estimation, against which he can offset his expenditure of vice.

    The habit of public apology for things for which one bears no personal responsibility changes the whole concept of a virtuous person, from one who exercises the discipline of virtue to one who expresses correct sentiment. The most virtuous person of all is he who expresses it loudest and to most people. This is a debasement of morality, not a refinement of it. The end result is likely to be self-satisfaction and ruthlessness accompanied by unctuous moralizing, rather than a determination to behave well.

    The effect on some of the recipients of such apologies is likely to be very bad also, for similar though slightly different reasons. Let us take the demand for an apology for the Atlantic slave trade as an example.

    I doubt whether anyone could be found nowadays who would mount a moral defense of that trade. That it was hideous and cruel beyond all description hardly needs saying, and what does not need saying should not be said, at least not often, for otherwise the lady doth protest too much.

    The demand for an apology supposes that there is a clearly definable person, or group of persons, who can be held responsible for the trade, or at the very least to have been the beneficiaries of it. In other words, the world can be neatly divided into historical oppressed and oppressor, victim and perpetrator.

    Most historical situations and their consequences are more complex and ambiguous than this simple schema would suggest, and the slave trade is no exception. For medical reasons having to do with relative immunity to malaria, if for no others, the supply of slaves depended crucially on the co-operation of African suppliers who captured slaves for sale. No apology from their descendents is required. The trade was abolished almost entirely through the efforts of white abolitionists. However discontented with their lot present-day American descendents of slaves may be, they are much better off than they would have been had their ancestors not been brought to America. Are they morally obliged, then, to offer up thanks to the slave traders who brought their ancestors to America?

    Thus the demand for an apology for the Atlantic slave trade is a demand that people with no personal responsibility for it apologize to people who have suffered no personal wrong from it. From the point of view of morality, this is a very strange demand.

    It isn’t very difficult to discern what lies behind it: money, and lots of it. Nor does it require extraordinary powers of prediction or foresight to know who would get the lion’s share of any such money that was forthcoming.

    But even when money is not involved, there are deleterious effects on the recipients of what one might call class-action apologies. Just as those who give them become convinced of their own virtue, so do those who receive them. It is enough that they should be considered victims for them to conclude that they can do no wrong, or at any rate no wrong worth talking about. For what is a personal peccadillo to set beside a great historical wrong?

    An apology of this kind, then, or even the supposition that such an apology ought to be forthcoming, exerts a liberating, that is to say loosening, effect upon personal morals. For what can I do wrong to compare with the wrongs that my ancestors suffered at the hands of your ancestors? How dare you even mention it, you hypocrite!

    The neat division of populations into victims and perpetrators, oppressed and oppressors, sinners and saints, that public apologies for long-past wrongs both imply and strengthen means that all sense of human tragedy is lost. The situation of the Aborigines in Australia, however, was and is tragic, and would still be tragic even had the settlers behaved from the first in the best possible or morally ideal fashion. (It is not in human nature that they should have done so, least of all in a rough-and-ready and very young frontier society.)

    There is no obvious or easy answer to the problem of a Stone Age people who come into close contact with a vastly superior material culture. Neither total assimilation nor preservation in what amounts to a living ethnographic museum is a complete or satisfactory solution; probably such a solution does not exist, which is the tragedy. But a blanket apology and the granting of group economic privileges is hardly the way to cultivate a sense of personal responsibility in a population now decimated by alcoholism and brutalized by family violence. Quite the contrary: psychologically, if not in strict logic, it will allow a man to beat his wife and blame history.

    The False Apology Syndrome flourishes wherever there has been a shift in the traditional locus of moral concern. At one time, a man probably felt most morally responsible for his own actions. He was adjudged (and judged himself) good or bad by how he conducted himself toward those in his immediate circle. From its center rippled circles of ever-decreasing moral concern, of which he was also increasingly ignorant. Now, however, it is the other way round. Under the influence of the media of mass communication and the spread of sociological ways of thinking, a man is most likely to judge himself and others by the opinions he and they hold on political, social, and economic questions that are far distant from his immediate circle. A man may be an irresponsible father, but that is more than compensated for by his deep concern about global warming, or foreign policy, or the food situation in Africa.

    A false apology is usually accompanied by bogus or insincere guilt, which is often confused with appropriate shame. The German chancellor, Mrs Merkel, spoke in the Knesset recently of her shame at what Germany had done: this was the correct word to use, and precisely the right sentiment for a German who shared no part of the responsibility for what had happened. Pride in the German musical tradition; shame for what Germans had done in the 1930s and ’40s.

    Guilt, by its very nature, ought to be connected to responsibility; it ought, moreover, to be in proportion to the wrongdoing that is its occasion. To assume a guilt greater than the responsibility warrants is actually a form of grandiosity or self-aggrandisement. The psychological mechanism seems to be something like this: “I feel very guilty, therefore I must be very important.”

    In some case, it is a substitute for importance, or for a loss of importance. Europe (or at least its intellectual class) now feels more than ever responsible for Africa, precisely because its power over it has waned. If Europe cannot feel itself responsible any longer for all that is good and progressive in Africa, such as modern medicine, roads, railways, telephone, etc., it can at least feel responsible for all that is bad in it, such as starvation, civil wars, and so forth. For it is far better, from the point of view of self-esteem, to be responsible for great evil than to be completely or even relatively unimportant. If in the process of false apologizing the participants render Africans themselves inert and inanimate, responsible themselves for nothing, or nothing very much, that is a small price to pay.

    False Apology Syndrome — which is not yet found in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of the American Psychiatric Association or the World Health Organization’s International Classification of Diseases, tenth edition — is a therefore rich but poisonous mixture of self-importance, libertinism, condescension, bad faith, loose thinking, and indifference to the effects it has on those who are apologized to.

    I am, of course, sorry if you disagree.