The Persistence of Stereotypes

Like all of the culture, stereotypes have to be learned. But once they are, they are extremely difficult to purge from one’s mind, or even to subdue into cultural curiosities that have no power over our behavior or thinking. Neuroscientists have long known that it takes much longer to unlearn incorrect information than it takes to learn it in the first place. Holding on to stereotypes is especially easy because evolution wired us to look for patterns as a survival skill. Successful hunting, gathering, farming and escaping predators all rely on forming patterns from our observations.

After millions of years of connection-making, we still look for patterns in everything. That is why some digital clock times seem mystically significant to me, like 12:34, or 11:11. Really, there are at least 45 such possibilities in a 12 hour period and while they register in my consciousness when I see them, all the other times that I check a digital clock and it’s, says, 12:38, or 2:47, I ignore that data. Stereotypes are reinforced each time we see something that appears to fit the pattern and contradicting information is either ignored or chocked up to exceptions, even to exceptions “that prove the rule,” as absurd as that expression is.

These stereotypes might be about whole classes of people – men, poor people, rich people, gay people, people who belong to specific professions, like lawyers or teachers or politicians, people who belong to certain political parties… the list of categories is endless.

Because pattern-forming is such a basic drive in humans, stereotypes, as well as other false belief systems, are extremely difficult to eradicate. Logic, facts & reason have little if any effect.

As we fight stereotypes, it’s important not to get stuck at the level of promoting anti-stereotype stereotypes. These are attempts, especially popular in movies and fiction books, to avoid promoting negative stereotypes by creating allegedly positive stereotypes. Thus, we see a flawless, if the 2-dimensional, super-smart girl in an otherwise male-dominated work of fiction, or a Black, female judge, or a Black, nerdy smart kid in a movie with mostly White characters. These anti-stereotype stereotypes are a step up from overtly hostile depictions of people from under-represented groups in mainstream fiction, but they are still harmful. They are harmful because, regardless of the intent, they are limiting, and ultimately dehumanizing.

There is hope. Accepting that you have absorbed some degree of stereotypical thinking, and paying attention to everything you see or hear that doesn’t fit the pattern of stereotypes will, over time, help lesson their power. We have a special responsibility to be mindful of how we pass on stereotyping to our children. In addition to moving beyond anti-stereotype stereotypes, we must be careful not to stimulate a stereotype threat effect in children by pre-emptively telling them they don’t fit a stereotype (“You show them that a girl can play ball, too.”) We should also be vigilant in not letting stereotypical comments to pass without a reaction; that’s the difference between, for example, not being actively racist and being actively anti-racist.

Ultimately, fighting stereotypical thinking means reducing the magical thinking of pattern-forming by noticing how patterns don’t hold up. It means moving from a mindset toward a more rational and realistic unset mind.

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