Stereotypes can be useful. For example, not all hitchhikers are serial killers. In fact, hitchhikers are more likely to be the victims of murder than do the actual murdering. Yet, since some hitchhikers are dangerous criminals, I must assume all hitchhikers are serial killers and avoid picking them up, since I do not wish to be murdered.
Categorizing all hitchhikers as serial killers is a stereotype, but it’s an example of how stereotypes can help us effectively navigate the world, and even keep us safe.
Stereotyping is human nature. It’s how we’re wired. Our brains are constantly seeking shortcuts and identifying patterns, to help us process the huge amount of data we take in every day. As a result, we stereotype people…by gender, race, class, religion, sex, dietary choices…you name it. More often than not, however, stereotypes are inaccurate, and can cause us to develop prejudices and make unfair judgments about individuals.
Sometimes, we don’t even realize how ridiculous or harmful a stereotype is until we really stop and think about it. I’ve heard some dumb, weird, and outright insulting stereotypes in my life. Here are my top 10.
- Asian women have sideways vaginas. A friend told me he heard this one in the military. I’ve heard it from a few other people since then. First of all, a vagina can’t be sideways. It’s a circular opening. Whomever started this stereotype likely meant Asian women have sideways vulvas, which is equally ridiculous, and just one example of how Asian women are eroticized and exoticized in Western culture.
- Immigrants attract cockroaches. Yes, someone actually said this to me once. Her police-officer boyfriend told her the reason apartment buildings in town have problems with cockroaches is from all the “foreigners” and their “weird” food. When I said I doubted that was true, she stopped talking and looked quite confused, as if no one had ever questioned the statement before. WTF?
- Vegan men are wimps. OK, I take this one personally, since my husband is a vegan and hardly a wimp. He’s not the Incredible Hulk, but he’s a strong man who also happens to have compassion for animals and chooses not to eat them. The whole “real men eat meat” stereotype is extremely pervasive. In most cases, these stereotypical “real men” are eating an animal that someone else killed and butchered, that was purchased in a grocery store. How is that manlier than buying, cooking, and eating vegetables? I don’t get it.
- Americans always eat pancakes, eggs, and bacon for breakfast. On a trip to Peru, this came up several times. People refused to believe that we did not eat Denny’s Grand Slam-style breakfast every single day. Why not? Because they’ve seen it in the movies, so it must be true.
- Redhead women are lusty and oversexed. What does oversexed even mean? If a woman wants to have lots of sex, that’s her prerogative, right? Also, what does hair color have to do with one’s sex drive? I really don’t understand this one, but I’ve run into more than one man who believes it to be true.
- Black people stink. I once worked as a waitress at a Howard Johnson’s in a part of Indiana that, shall we say, has some racial tension. A fellow waitress once confided she didn’t like waiting on black families because they didn’t tip well and “they have an odor.” I was a teenager, and so flabbergasted I didn’t know what to say. I still regret not calling her out on her ignorance. I took the tables for her, met some nice people, and made a few extra bucks.
- Feminists are unattractive. If you believe women should have equal rights to men, then you are a feminist. That’s all it means. Feminism is not about special treatment, or hairy armpits, or being angry because we can’t get laid. There are feminists from every country, every socio-economic class, every religion, every sexual orientation, every profession, every race and ethnicity. Many feminists are even (gasp!) men. I think the famous quote by Cheris Kramarae and Paula Treichle says it best, “Feminism is the radical notion that women are people.”
- Gay people are sexual predators. This one comes up a lot in sports and in discussions about gays in the military. Say a professional athlete comes out as gay. Often, the media and others will ask the straight players if they now feel uncomfortable sharing the locker-room with that person. The assumption is that gay people are constantly on the prowl for sex, ready to pounce on unsuspecting heteros. In reality, a gay athlete is likely thinking about the same thing as a straight athlete: the upcoming game. And laughing and joking with teammates is about camaraderie, the same as with anyone else.
- Boys will be boys. There’s not much I dislike more than using a stereotype to excuse bad behavior. Bullying in particular is often shrugged off with a casual “You know how boys are” statement. According to an article by Deborah Carpenter and Christopher J. Ferguson, Ph.D., “When a boy is socialized to believe that his aggressive tendencies are predominantly or entirely innate or biological, he will believe that he doesn’t have the power to control them. That is false.”
- Homeless people are dangerous. A few years ago, on an extremely cold winter night, one of my neighbors found a homeless man sleeping in the lobby of our building. The man wasn’t drunk. He wasn’t threatening anyone. The only thing he was guilty of was trying to survive the night (well, and trespassing). Suddenly, many residents felt threatened. They called for a special assessment to pay for timed locks on the building’s outer doors to keep “them” out at night. I voted no, but lost. Contrary to popular belief, most homeless people are not addicts, nor are they criminals. They are people who deserve our compassion, and at the very least, to not die of exposure.
There are hundreds more stereotypes that I haven’t listed. And I didn’t even touch on the so-called “positive” stereotypes, like “All Asians have high IQs” and “People with disabilities are brave.” If I only wrote about stereotypes and how damaging they can be, I would never run out of material.
Have you been a victim of stereotyping? Which stereotypes frustrate you most? Were you able to overcome stereotypes that you once believed? Post a comment and join the discussion.
Photo by *Bri* on Flickr