Many of our stereotypes were formed by the media, especially movies and television. Let’s examine some stereotypes from the past and see how they’ve changed over time.
Starting with female stereotypes. From the past: the characters, Scarlett O’Hara and Mammy, from Gone With the Wind.
Mammy certainly was a classic stereotype of the non-white woman. In the story (the 1860’s), she was a slave, but her servant role accurately reflected the times of the movie’s premiere (1939) and for decades thereafter.
Today, that role is being portrayed not so much by African American women, but by Hispanic women, as in the movies, Maid In Manhattan and Spanglish.
Scarlett O’Hara, although she had lots of spirits, portrayed white women as flighty and interested mainly in looking pretty and getting a man.
Today, we have four women from Sex In The City. They now have professions, but what are their primary interests? Looking pretty and getting a man.
We also find CSI’s Katherine an interesting modern stereotype. As a forensic crime scene investigator, she is a professional in a non-traditional role. [Also, she is an example of a recent trend of portraying middle-aged women as still being “sexy.”] But the character’s former occupation was: stripper. Not an occupation that most professional women would identify with.
Moving on to male stereotypes…
The classic white male stereotype is probably John Wayne — brave, strong, independent and emotionally closed off.
An African American male stereotype from somewhat earlier was Stepin Fetchit — shuffling, subservient, ignorant, and eager to please.
What are the modern portrayals of white and African American men? Now they often are paired in buddy movies like 48 Hours and Men In Black.
The African American portrayals have very much evolved. Now they are intelligent, rebellious, wise-cracking and almost equal partners to the whites. [“Almost” because they are the younger, junior partners.]
What can we say about the white men in these movies? Brave, strong, independent and emotionally closed off.
Our final example is Asian men…
A classic Asian male stereotype is Charlie Chan — wise, highly intelligent, but speaking with an extreme broken English. And the actor portraying the character was always non-Asian.
Today, instead of Charlie Chan, we have Jackie Chan and Jet Li. Asian actors, but the stereotype has been dumbed down. Their speech has improved, but their competence now is with their fists.
How We Build Stereotypes
How do we as individuals or as a cultural form such stereotypes?
The human mind naturally groups similar experiences (especially early life experiences), categorizes, and labels them.
We form opinions and judgments of these categories based on our experience. Often these judgments are negative, but not always. For example, Charlie Chan was portrayed as being very wise and insightful; many of the attributes associated with the John Wayne archetype (e.g., bravery and self-reliance) are admirable; and women often have been portrayed as nurturing, which is positive, although very limiting.
Then we spend the rest of our lives looking for proof, subconsciously at least. So, when we see someone who somewhat fits the stereotype — for example, a woman who is interested in looking pretty and getting a man — we say to ourselves, in effect: “See, I told you so.”
And the exceptions (e.g., Hillary Clinton) prove the rule: “You aren’t like the rest of them.”
It can become a…
Our opinions, stereotypes, biases, and prejudices impact how we treat people, e.g., older men and African American women.
And that affects their behavior. So:
Instead of an Alan Greenspan (who, as Federal Reserve Chairman until his recent retirement, was one of the most powerful men in the country), such treatment increases the chances of our encountering … a worn-out, bitter old codger.
And instead of a Condoleezza Rice, one of the most powerful African American women in the country, we’re more likely to find … a welfare mother.
Which, of course, confirms our biases. It’s a vicious circle.
How to Break Down Stereotypes
How do we break out of this circle or break down our stereotypes? You need to ask yourself:
Does your opinion hold true for everyone in the group? Yes, some women are beauty queens, and some are surgeons.
Is the person thought of as part of a group first, rather than an individual? When you see Hilary Clinton on television, do you see Baby Boomer White Woman or a unique individual in American politics?
Do your past experiences with members of this group affect this interaction? Most of those experiences stem from childhood, but some can be very recent. For example, think about the impact of all of those images of Hurricane Katrina victims in 2005. Again and again, African Americans associated with poverty, squalor, and helplessness. It may be necessary to consciously remind yourself of all the black men and women you know or have seen, who are … pretty much like you.
And here’s one that’s especially relevant for the workplace: Does your opinion reflect the knowledge, skills, and abilities necessary to do the job? For example, do you view people in wheelchairs as cripples or as unique individuals with one obvious mobility limitation and all kinds of abilities?