Negative stereotypes have been used throughout the ages to categorize a group of people, isolate them from others and then create fear and hatred toward them. Stereotyping was the first step the Nazis used to deride and isolate Jews. Once they were segregated and the flames of hatred against them were ignited and fanned, even the unimaginable torture and mass murders of the Holocaust became possible.
Racial stereotypes are often the first that come to mind but they are not the only kind. Ethnic, political, religious, economic and social stereotypes have become rampant in our society today. They divide us and keep us from working to accomplish great things together. Stereotypes aren’t always negative but they are always false or misleading because each person is unique and not necessarily in lock-step with any group. Even though we may share some traits or common experiences with others we are still unique in our total make up and our reaction to our environment.
The quickest way to destroy any stereotype is to personally interact with several individuals from that group. For instance, I have met several wealthy business people in my life and not one of them was greedy or self-centered. They all cared about their employees and privately donated money and time to help those in need. I’m not saying all are like that but there are definitely enough to explode that stereotype.
As a trainer in the pest management industry I had the privilege to train individuals of diverse backgrounds and nationalities. I often sensed apprehension on the part of minority trainees that first day due to their stereotyping of a middle-aged white guy who would have the power to determine if they could handle their new job. Within a few days that tension was completely gone and by the end of their training we were friends and coworkers in the industry. That happened because I got to know their personal strengths and weaknesses and worked with each of them to help them reach their potential. Their stereotypes of me and any stereotypes I may have had about them were all exploded. We were unique individuals not part of any group.
My wife had similar experiences in retail before illness forced her to retire. Her store manager and most of her coworkers and customers were African-American. She was an older white woman who has retained her southern accent from growing up on the Indiana-Kentucky border. Because of that she could have been stereotyped as a racist southerner who might even be the grand-daughter of slave owners, but that didn’t happen because everyone immediately sensed that she was not at all uncomfortable in that situation and she began to relate to each of them as individuals without stereotyping them. She formed some close friendships with coworkers and customers alike.
My wife and I were fortunate that long before Martin Luther King, Jr. uttered those wonderful words our parents taught us to judge people not by the color of their skin but by the content of their character. I am encouraged that our children and grand-children have been exposed to people from many different backgrounds and have made friends with them. They know them as individuals and not members of some race or group. When you point out the diversity of their circle of friends they are surprised you even noticed such a thing. That bodes well for the explosion of stereotypes and for the future of our society and our nation.