Thinking About Stereotypes
Do you know what the following have in common?
- Conan O’Brien
- Bob Marley
- Mad Men
- Funny or ironic tattoos
- 80s Night
- Not Having a TV
Did you know they all are things that white people like? Well, at least that’s the case according to the website stuffwhitepeoplelike.com. For the record, I am a white person. I do think Conan O’Brien is funny. I used to enjoy camping when I was in my 20s. And I like Bob Marley. (Is there anyone who doesn’t like Bob Marley?) I’ve never seen an episode of Mad Men and I don’t have any tattoos. You couldn’t pay me to go to an 80s night at a club or bar, and you couldn’t pay me to get rid of my television.
But I’m just one white person, and obviously my experiences and tastes don’t speak for all white people. There are approximately 200 million whites in the United States alone, and you couldn’t reduce them to a list of stereotypes, could you? I guess if you’re Christian Lander, you could. He created the website stuffwhitepeoplelike.com and was awarded a book deal based on the website’s popularity. One article I read estimated that his book deal was worth $300,000. Not bad for compiling a list of stereotypes.
He also is on the lecture circuit. The website lists his upcoming speaking events at colleges around the country. Lander, who is white and grew up in Canada, has talked about how he started the blog as a joke. If you listen to Lander talk about his website, it’s apparent that his purpose is not to disparage whites. Rather, he’s just satirizing them and indulging in some good-natured mockery.
This led me to wonder, when it comes to stereotyping, how much does intent matter? Is stereotyping acceptable if the purpose isn’t to insult the group being stereotyped? And does it matter who is doing the stereotyping? How would people respond if a white person blogged about things that black people supposedly like?
Oh wait, that’s happening on a website called Stuff Black People Like. The author explains that the blog is meant to be funny and satirical and that he is not a racist. He says: “But sadly where I live it is not very diverse. Many many white people. Stupid ignorant ones at that.” Some of the posts are about being good at sports, making fashion statements, and liking soul food.
There is also a website called Stuff Asian People Like. There are posts about ramen noodles, techno music, and karaoke. According to the website, the entries are “written by Asians, about Asians” and the goal “is to simply point out cultural and social truths over light-hearted humor in order to build up the Asian community and not tear it down.”
We can define stereotypes as assumptions about what people are like. They are generalizations about a group that are simplified and do not acknowledge differences between members of that group. I am torn about how I feel about the websites I have mentioned. On the one hand, I don’t like them because they promote stereotypes. Nor do I find them to be funny or insightful, but that is my subjective opinion. On the other hand, I enjoy other forms of media that use stereotypes in satirical ways (The Simpsons and Family Guy are two examples).
I don’t like when people are reduced to stereotypes, but satire can be an effective means of challenging our notions about people who belong to a particular group. Do you think that stereotyping is harmless (or at least not harmful) if the intent is not to insult, or degrade, the group being stereotyped? Or, do you think all stereotyping is harmful to some extent?
Whatever your view about stereotypes happens to be, I think it’s important that we examine our own assumptions about groups that differ from our own, and that we reflect honestly about how we stereotype in the course of our lives. I take pride in having an open-mind and resisting generalized views of groups, but upon reflection I recall a specific time in my life when I was operating with a stereotype.
Several years ago, a student was struggling in one of my courses. He rarely attended class, did poorly on exams, and wouldn’t come to office hours to discuss his performance in my class. He wasn’t the first student to earn low grades in my course and he won’t be the last. But for some reason I devoted a lot of energy trying to determine why this particular student wasn’t succeeding in my class. The course ended without him changing his habits or exhibiting more effort. All signs seemed to indicate he didn’t care about succeeding in my course.
So why was this surprising to me? Upon serious reflection, I realized the source of my bewilderment: the student was Asian-American. I had fallen prey to a stereotype that all Asian-Americans are academically gifted and earn high grades. Had it been a student of any other racial or ethnic background, I sincerely believe I wouldn’t have thought so much or so long about why he was blowing off my course. But by virtue of his membership in a specific racial group, I assumed he should do well in my class.
I didn’t see him as a student, I saw him as an Asian-American student. It’s okay to recognize differences between students, but difference shouldn’t translate to inequality. In this case, I wasn’t treating all students equally. Assuming that a particular student is “better” than the others is both unfair to the student and to the students’ peers. As a teacher I cannot and must not assume that a student should perform in a certain way because of their race. Students must be treated fairly based on their individual ability and work ethic, not based on their group membership.
Does this story leave you wondering if I carry assumptions about white students and African-American students? I can understand if it does, but I am sure that my stereotyping was limited to Asian-American students. Most of the students I have taught in my career have been white and African-American, and students from both groups have occupied the entire spectrum of academic ability and effort. Students from both groups have been spectacular, and students from both groups have been less than spectacular.
However, I haven’t taught a lot of Asian-American students because enrollment of Asian-Americans at the university where I teach is very low. My story about the young man I stereotyped is, in a sense, also a story about the first time I noticed that an Asian-American student hadn’t done well in one of my classes.
Reflecting further back in my life, my peers in elementary school, middle school and high school were, for the most part, white and African-American. So my exposure to those racial groups has always been high. In contrast, I haven’t known nearly as many Asian-Americans and Latinos as classmates and students. Perhaps my limited exposure to Asian-Americans in educational settings left me susceptible to a stereotype about their academic ability. In the case of Latinos, I can honestly say I’ve never held preconceptions about their academic ability. Maybe it’s because there’s a stereotype that “all Asians are smart” but that stereotype doesn’t seem to exist for whites, African-Americans, and Latinos.
I learned a lot from the time I stereotyped a particular Asian-American student. And since that time, my expectations have been the same for all students, with no assumption that some students will perform better than others based on which racial or ethnic group they belong. For me it was a case of “live and learn,” and an important reminder that all students are on par with each other, with no group expected to do better or worse than another.