Whether it is our thoughts about black teens wearing hoodies or baggie pants, or white kids wearing punk hairstyles and mystic tattoos; whether it is rich kids driving BMWs and Corvettes to high schools; or Hispanics kids driving decorated low-riders. We all have and use stereotypes that wield a lot of persuasive power, intentionally or unintentionally in our daily lives.
The influence they have on our perceptions and actions toward each other too often is not very good, and does little to improve our understanding of and relations with one another.
The costs, limitations, and hurtfulness abound.
We do not have to wait to have a dialogue about the harmful affects of stereotypes when we allow them to blindly govern our thoughts about and behavior toward others who do not share our skin color, do not live in our neighborhood, who like different kinds of foods, or who prefer and wear different kinds of clothes.
We have become too accustomed to relying on attitudes and labels, rightly or wrongly, passed from one generation to the next, without ever taking time to examine them or bother to learn firsthand whether such labels and stereotypes are true, or bare any semblance to reality. Yet, we allow these notions and presuppositions to govern our lives — often irrespective of the settings.
We do not see stereotypes just playing out in the law enforcement and criminal justice arenas, but we see it playing out in how schools teach or do not teach kids of color. We see it play out in whether and how companies hire people of color and/or promote them, or not promote them, in the work place. We see stereotypes at play when people of color go to buy a house, get equitable, and market rate mortgages even when they are well educated with good jobs that make them very creditworthy.
Labels and stereotypes — what power they wield, more often negatively defining and destructive, than not.
Most of us are often not in tune, sometime totally oblivious, to how other labels — sociological, economic, political, racial, religious — affect how we go about our business on a day-to-day basis. Assigning and using labels within itself is not the problem. This phenomenon is perfectly normal according to sociologists. Labels, symbols, rituals, like laws and rules, provide order to our society. Such practices determine the nature and quality of any civilization. The lack of norms causes the collapse of a civilization. So, labels and symbols, in and of themselves, are not bad.
How labels are used becomes the problem — when they evolve into negative stereotypes. Rightly or wrongly, we place people and things in “boxes” or categories to manage and guide our conduct toward them, and determine many other decisions we make.
Many minority groups (and minority is a label) could testify about the impact labels have had on their ability, or lack thereof, to fully assimilate in society and enjoy the opportunities and privileges afforded “non-minorities.” The minority label is not just confined to racial or ethnic groups. Minorities can also pertain to beliefs, religious affiliations, political identity, i.e. conservative vs. liberal vs. independent, socio-economic status, etc.
Categorical and stereotypical labels can be harmful — very harmful. While they often provide a level of comfort and ease as one interacts in his/her environment, they often serve as blinders to the discovery of truth and determining reality.
Will you continue to allow labels and stereotypes passed down by family members or perpetuated in mainstream media to determine how you think or act?
Or will you bother to examine and verify? While you may owe having an open mind to those you encounter, more importantly, you owe it to yourself.
The indiscriminate use of a stereotype is costly not only to the person it is being used against, but also to the one who is using it.