June 2, 2010

Stereotyping as a Means to Understanding

As humans trying to understand the world around us we have a tendency to want to define everything. Definitions give the allusion of increasing understanding through breaking down subjects, objects, and concepts into self-explanatory factors that make up what it is as a whole. There are two problems with this approach.

1. we believe these “self-explanatory” factors that make up our definitions of objects are objective and hence so are our definitions, but they are not. The factors that we perceive to be most central to defining objects are a result of our social, historical, and cultural backgrounds. We often assume our perception of these objects is objective because we are surrounded by people who are living in the same context as we are and therefore perceive similarly. Because we are defining objects as a result of the “environment” we happen to grow up in, we can assume that if we grew up in a different place and time our way of perceiving, and therefore defining would differ. Take the concept of race, for example. Most Americans would define race to be a group of people with the same physical characteristics (such as skin color and hair) as a result of common genes. They believe that this definition is universally accepted, but holds scientific validity (just to clarify, there are actually NO similarities that can be genetically drawn between people of the same race). BUT in Brazil, race is actually dependent upon socio-economic status. So a “white” person (a person of western European descent) and a “latino” person (of Spanish or Portuguese and native American descent) can be of the same race if they have been offered the same educational and financial opportunities.

2. As soon as we start making objective claims about what factors we’ve subjectively decided define objects, we inevitably start grouping items that possess these same factors together. This leads to categories.

With the formulation of categories we no longer need to define items individually. When we see items that possess particular factors, we place them in the category whose items also possess these factors. In categorizing items we focus on common characteristics, and in the process, neglect others.

Humans like to understand items through categorization because it is an easy way to understand the world around us. To not have to individually understand each item but instead to be able to say just by mere observation,“This” is “this” and “that” is “that.” Period. End story.

This becomes problematic when the items being categorized are people. We place people into categories based on the factors we perceive to be the most essential to defining their identity, but in doing so we neglect others parts of who they are. We are dictating to them who they are and what they are by making assumptions, and for what? Because we are lazy? Because it is easier?

Maybe blame could be placed on the first scholars who classified humans according to race, but now, blame can not be placed on every person in our society who understands the world via category. As said, understanding objects via categorization is so engrained in our culture, it makes sense that we would also understand people via this method. But it is categorization that leads to assumptions about cultures, races, societies, countries, religions, and any other grouping of people you might think of. It is the origin of stereotyping. It is the reason that Muslims who wear (or even don’t wear) burqas are stopped by TSA, the reason that Mexicans are now being asked to verify their citizenship in Arizona, the reason that when Americans are abroad they are treated with hostility for being ethnocentric and self-righteous…I mean honestly, pick a stereotype, any stereotype.

We are often not even conscious that in trying to understand people we are actually doing the opposite by placing them into one category they may not associate with at all or only partially associate with. We are limiting their expressed identity, by focusing on particular factors and neglecting others. It is not to say that groups of people whether it be a race, culture, or nationality do not have similar factors. The factors that are perceived are sometimes there, but not always, and even if they are, they are not necessarily the ones the people of this group themselves would associate most closely with their identity. We can use the commonalities between groups of people to understand their history or culture but we must not assume that the factors we have used to distinguish their group from others are the defining ones or that they even begin to help us understand people individually.

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