We all know the common stereotypes about African-Americans, Latinos, Jews, Asians, Muslims, and other high profile minority communities. They are said to be lazy, violent, dumb, smart, funny looking, money hungry, angry, brilliant lovers, or terrible ones. Whether the stereotype is positive or negative, it still unfairly paints everyone in a given group with a broad brush that fosters false beliefs about individual members of those groups. When people operate from these false beliefs their perceptions can lead them to misjudge and misunderstand what the other person is about and where they are coming from.
Stereotypes are rampant in today’s society although they aren’t verbalized as frequently as they used to be. However, the decreased admission of stereotypical thinking has done little to diminish its impact on those who are stereotyped, and has caused many who use stereotypes to become less conscious of their propensity to do so. In other words, they stereotype others consistently without being aware that they are doing it.
People of color understand this process well for they have experienced historical stereotypes about their racial or ethnic group and they have experienced the impact of unconscious stereotyping first hand. White people may have had a different experience with stereotypes. The truth is, most White people don’t know the stereotypes that are applied to the white race.
As a diversity trainer, I have conducted the “Childhood Stereotypes” activity over 300 times in the past two decades. I post large charts around the room, each with the name of a specific identity group, and ask participants to write one thing they learned in childhood about each of the named groups. The groups include men, women, Black people, White people, Asian people, Latino people, gay/lesbian people, and people with disabilities. Without fail, the White people in the room find it difficult to write on the “White person” chart. Many admit that all they were ever taught about being white was that they were “normal” or “American.” Members of the other named groups have no problem writing stereotypes they were taught about their own group.
So does this mean there are no stereotypes about White people? Of course not! Other words are written on the White people’s chart by the other populations in the room. Words like, “entitled, privileged, superior, uppity, rich, clean, mean, scared, and boring.” The White people in attendance appear surprised by the stereotypes that other races and ethnicities hold about them. They cannot personally relate to most of the words they see listed. The activity seems to open their eyes to the erroneous nature of many stereotypes and the hurtful impact of having others arbitrarily assign traits to you that you simply don’t possess.
Unfortunately a very small percentage of White people have the opportunity to come to this realization. Most just go through their day feeling “normal and American.” Given this fact, one might wonder if they will ever get it. And if they don’t get it, will they ever stop stereotyping others?
This is indeed, a question to ponder.