All stereotypers need my help to become better people.
July 14, 2005 1:13 PM   Subscribe

What are some persuasive points to make to help someone realize that stereotyping isn't a desirable way of categorizing people? Say that the person's main argument when you say, "Hey, that's stereotyping!" is, "I'm not saying I hate them; I'm not saying they're bad; I'm just saying they talk loud/don't tip well/act just like that skit on SNL." How also to explain the sometimes subtle difference between saying: "People from this region/culture talk like this," (accents) and "People from this region/culture act like this," (possible stereotype)? I already immediately say that I don't like to hear sweeping comments about particular races/cultures/religions/genders in order to get the person to stop saying that stuff around me (and potentially around others)... but the chance to make a comment that could be thought-provoking is very tempting.
posted by xo to Human Relations (31 answers total)
I disagree that talking about these broad swathes of people and their actions is neccessarily undesirable, especially if it's a new nugget of information. And while stereotypes usually hold a grain of truth, the reason they are stereotypes and painful to the ear is because they are overfamiliar and cliched and based on second-hand or totally obvious information. Probably best to yawn and shrug your shoulders and say "Thanks Captain Obvious. Tell me something I don't know" and change the subject.
posted by dydecker at 1:40 PM on July 14, 2005

I have trouble too with outright racist statements - particularly derogatory terms or phrases like, "If you do that to the kid, he'll turn out gay."

This isn't hard to speak up with strangers, but it's really awkward when it's with extended family or a friend of a friend. I'm interested in how others respond to these things.
posted by agregoli at 1:51 PM on July 14, 2005

"The application of a narrow set of characteristics to a broad population is stereotyping. How is a short comedy sketch anything but narrow?"
posted by plinth at 1:52 PM on July 14, 2005

I don't like to hear sweeping comments about particular races/cultures/religions/genders...

If cultures don't share traits or rituals, how are they cultures?
posted by grumblebee at 1:58 PM on July 14, 2005

I sometimes just go into total hyperbole mode, with "Yes, you're right. Women want babies. EVERY SINGLE ONE OF THEM. ALL THE TIME. I can't even walk down the street without wanting to fuck homeless guys just so they'll impregnate me, or without stealing babies from strollers. Look, my boobs are dripping milk just thinking about BABIES!!! BABIES!!! I NEED BABIES!!!!!"

This approach obviously works best if you're a member of the stereotyped group, but it can be applied third person. And it helps to go SO over-the-top with it that it comes across as gentle silly teasing rather than a sarcastic superior eyeroll.
posted by occhiblu at 2:02 PM on July 14, 2005

Remember the characterizations and then point out exceptions every time you see them. If he thinks all X do Y, be sure to remark on every X who does not do Y. Do this until he can't help but think (and admit) that not all X do Y.

For example, if he says all people from the American south are ignorant hicks, point out all the intelligent, educated, cultured southerners you can. And remind him that they are smart, intelligent, cultured people who (relative to you) just happen to speak English with an accent, just as everyone else who speaks English has an accent (relative to people from other regions). You might need to educate yourself about the people he talks about so you can respond with solid examples off the top of your head. If he admires a certain sort of person (authors, politicians, athletes, performers, etc.), learn about southern examples.

If tht doesn't work and you want to aggravate him while making your point, you might also try some faux prejudice against a kind of people he likes, probably people who are like him. If he's of Italian descent, for example, point out all the loud, stupid, ignorant, dirty, scruffy, dishonest (or whatever it is he says about other groups) Italians you can. "Yep. Another loud, ignorant Italian. Christ, what is it with these people?" Every group has such people in equal abundance, of course, so you won't have trouble finding the examples you need. Just do it with a smile; make sure he knows what you're up to.
posted by pracowity at 2:04 PM on July 14, 2005

I think I understand what you're saying. You could try asking questions about the assumption, in order to expose the real feelings behind the stereotyping, or at least get out the facts. For example:

Friend (in traffic): Damned women drivers!
You: What about women drivers?
Friend: They suck!
You: How so?
Friend: Didn't you see that chick cut me off?
You: So men never cut you off?

...and so on. Just keep asking questions, and making your friend supply the info. It may annoy the piss out of your friend, but it will force some introspection.
posted by frykitty at 2:09 PM on July 14, 2005

Bleh, I've been having this problem with one of my friends lately. Whenever he hears someone "talk black" he spouts off about how "unintelegent" they are.

The other day we caught a bit of "The Surreal Life" on vh1. One of the cast, Peppa (from salt 'n' peppa) said some steriotypicaly 'black' thing like "No he didn't!" and he blurts out:

"Oh, she's an idiot!" which would imply that a large majority of black people are idiots if they ever speak like that. I quickly turned off the TV.

Before that he started going off about how there were tons of minorities in TV commercials and that this was going to make people "feel guilty for being white"!? At that point I just told him to shut up, (and he still kept talking).

I realize that the problem is with people thinking these things, rather then just saying them, but it might be a good idea to just tell them to shut up, that you don't like to hear that kind of thing, etc. They'll get the idea eventually.

I mean, you could explain that just because it seems like there's a high correlation between X and some race, that doesn't mean that there actually is, or that you can even apply that to any specific individual. I don't think that argument is really all that compelling to people who aren't properly grounded in statistics, though. Which is like most people.
posted by delmoi at 2:23 PM on July 14, 2005

Also, you might want to try saying "I consider that racist" or "I think that's racist". If you just say "That's racist" then they can come back with "No it's not."

Make the argument about your feelings and perception rather then "the truth."
posted by delmoi at 2:26 PM on July 14, 2005

In that particular instance, you could have told him he sounded like more of an idiot for stereotyping black people than the person on television did for using a mode of speech.
posted by agregoli at 2:27 PM on July 14, 2005

Along the lines of what delmoi said: Rather than saying "That's stereotyping" (which is truly neutral and pervasive -- we stereotype all the time, and it can be either productive or not), maybe you could say "That's hurtful"? Focus on the effect of the speech, not on its category.
posted by occhiblu at 2:44 PM on July 14, 2005

Stereotypes are not the problem.

Stereotyping is a natural psychological mechanism that helps a person cope with the world. If we didn't stereotype, we'd necessarily have to treat every person as a blank slate, and need to waste a lot of time negotiating the same communication links over and over again. Stereotypes help us overcome this problem. If I'm making sales calls and I meet a particular person, I subconsciously classify the person according to stereotypes (as do we all). This makes communication easier.

In a way, you can think of it with an object-orient programming analog. When you meet a person, you decide that they are an object of a particular class, and you are able to communicate with the person because you understand particular properties and methods that class of person generally contains.

Stereotypes become a problem when they are erroneous, when they're based on misinformation, when they allow no leeway for individuality. I am a member of the Roth class. I share with other members of the Roth class certain characteristics. However, I've also overridden some of these functions with some of my own code. I've also added some new methods. I don't mind when somebody new assumees certain things about me because they know other members of my family, but I resent it when this stereotype persists despite evidence to the contrary.

One good way to help somebody overcome a tendency to cling to erroneous stereotypes is to gently point out exceptions, as frykitty and pracowity suggests. If the person says "typical woman driver", point out when a woman drives well, or point out when a man drives poorly.

Note that this does not always work. My father was an ignorant ass when it came to erroneously stereotyping women; I took great pains to point out his errors (and my wife took even greater pains). It didn't help. To his dying day, he was a sexist son-of-a-bitch.

I don't think the problem you describe is stereotyping, it's racism, sexism, what-have-you-ism.
posted by jdroth at 2:49 PM on July 14, 2005

As what jdroth said - there is a legimate and vital need for stereotyping that none of us can escape and all need and use every day, and is hardwired into our very brains quite simply because it works far better than anything else available to us. So you need to be aware of that, so that you can narrow your focus specifically to the counterproductive stereotyping, else someone can easily smack you down because you yourself have over-generalised (in effect stereotyped stereotying).
posted by -harlequin- at 3:06 PM on July 14, 2005

That didn't come out right - it might be read as suggesting you're not aware of the difference, when I meant study the difference - look at the kind of stereotyping that is necessary and works, and see how it differs from racism, sexism, etc.
posted by -harlequin- at 3:13 PM on July 14, 2005

Y'know what stereotype I hate - the one where your friend thinks he has the right to change your behavior.

Seriously. If you're not happy, they're not a good friend for you. Or accept them. Quit thinking you can change anything. Certainly the over the top crap will merely alientate your friend and make him thing you're an asshole.
posted by filmgeek at 3:25 PM on July 14, 2005

grumblebee writes: "If cultures don't share traits or rituals, how are they cultures?"

I think that's exactly the area I'm trying to explore with these people in my life that I bump heads with. Some traits of a culture define it, and some are assumed traits that seem to be stereotypes/racism.

For example, I consider New York Jews to be a culture. They don't necessarily share the same exact religion (between orthodoxy and sects and ethnic background), but there are lots of customs in common, particular foods, some use of Yiddish words, and a particular accent in part of the population. I think that's a culture. But what that culture does not necessarily share is a tendency towards complaining, or cheapness, or overbearingness, or whatever.

jdroth writes: "I don't think the problem you describe is stereotyping, it's racism, sexism, what-have-you-ism."

I've been finding it difficult to make the point to someone that what they're saying is racist when it's not a negative. "Asians are good at math and science," is as silly as "Jews complain a lot," but harder to see as such, so I tend to point it out as stereotyping rather than racism.

harlequin writes: "...So you need to be aware of that, so that you can narrow your focus specifically to the counterproductive stereotyping."

Yes, I think this is the essence of my question. How can I make a point to someone about the difference between regular shorthand stereotyping: "New York Jews talk like this," and counterproductive stereotyping: "New York Jews tip their waiters like this."
posted by xo at 3:30 PM on July 14, 2005

Depends on how much you like the guy and where this comes from. If he's the kind of guy who can see that he's being unacceptably negative, the "reasoning" techniques may work. If he's the kind of guy who doesn't realize that what he's saying sounds racist, the "hurtful/I statement" thing might work.

Personally, I'm for reacting with "that's a fucked-up thing to say" along with the appropriate WTF look, and then moving on.

You're likely not going to win a debate with the guy, because stereotyping is normal, but makes it easy for people to slide into a lazy kind of racism/sexism/other isms. But people take their cues as to what's acceptable from their peers. If they get censured, they learn to stop saying that stuff.

On preview: filmgeek, it is okay to disagree with people without cutting them out of your life, isn't it? Sheesh.
posted by desuetude at 3:31 PM on July 14, 2005

filmgeek writes: "Seriously. If you're not happy, they're not a good friend for you. Or accept them. Quit thinking you can change anything. Certainly the over the top crap will merely alientate your friend and make him thing you're an asshole."

Filmgeek, if you're not happy, this is not a good question for you. Accept it. Quit thinking you can change anything.
posted by xo at 3:37 PM on July 14, 2005

I don't think assigning certain characteristics to a large segment of the population is stereotyping, or even a problem. As someone said, it's the definition of culture, for one.

I think of stereotyping as the reflexive assumption that everyone in a group shares traits common to the group.

My retort is always something like, "That might be true of many [group], but we don't live/interact/perform retail transactions with groups. We live with individuals."
posted by stupidsexyFlanders at 4:00 PM on July 14, 2005

stupidsexyflanders, yours is the best response yet, and the most practical in application.

Folklorists encounter this problem constantly. After all, we need to be able to characterize communities and document their behavior, then write or speak about the behavior. Yet we recognize that individual variations within any group are always greater than variations between groups taken at large. It's important never to make assumptions or blanket statements, or you'll miss the really interesting, new, and suprising things that there are to learn from people.

It's useful to ask your prejudiced buddies to think about people you know. An anthropologist friend of mine has a great strategy. He speaks on immigration a lot. Now, think about the word "immigrant". He found when he said this word, people came up with one or two narrow associations -- either a Babushka-clad, baby-clutching Ellis Island person from 1910, or a modern-day Hispanic person lining up for landscaping labor or dishwashing. IN either case, people revert to a stereotype based on something that is indeed observable, but not necessarily representative. After discussing this, he then says: Now think about people you know who are immigrants. Suddenly you think about the guy who coaches youth soccer who was born in Germany. The Laotian computer instructor. The Norwegian woman who works as a horticulturist at the nursery. The Senegalese doctor who checked you over at the ER last time you went in. The Dominican who plays drums in that jazz band you saw last week. Great-grandpa.

Stereotypes are useful when thinking and talking about people we don't know very well. But the closer you look at a population, the more a stereotype disintegrates. Overall trends don't dictate individual characteristics. Behaviors do cluster in communities, but people who study communities will often use expressions like: "a dominant pattern among steelworkers is..." or "many Southern Italians..." or "a longstanding tradition in the Polish-speaking community of Hartford is..." or "subjects were observed doing..." There is an effort to avoid predictive language that would purport to cover any member of a population, because fully inclusive statements are terribly easy to prove false. One counterexample and your conclusions are now unreliable.

So, yeah, many New York Jews use Yiddish words. So do lots of other Jews outside New York, and so do non-Jews, who pick up words like "tchotchke" and "mensch". Many of them might have a predilection for certain kinds of humor, but without specifically measuring that, you couldn't really say what kinds of humor and how many people exhibit that.
And after all, it's fairly easy to tell when someone is using a stereotype as communicative shorthand ("She's one of those crunchy granola, Volvo-driving types") and when they're using it as a veiled means of demeaning or belittling a group they'd like to consider inferior ("She's a Volvo-driving, latte-drinking liberal").

It's not the words that create the problems. It's the intent. If your friend is unwilling to concede that stereotypes aren't particularly reliable ways of characterizing individuals, their intent is probably not benign.
posted by Miko at 4:38 PM on July 14, 2005 [3 favorites]

I'm not sure what it is, but I'm perfectly happy stereotyping groups I identify with/are a part of/used to be, than groups I am not in any way connected with. Tangentially OT.
posted by eurasian at 4:48 PM on July 14, 2005

eurasian, it's just that you're more confident that you understand the basis of the stereotype for the group you're involved in, and know when you are and aren't likely to give offense by voicing it. I will occasionally make a derogatory comment about New Jersey to others who 'get it', because I'm a New Jerseyan. But I rankle when people who know nothing about my state say negative things about it. They have neither the knowledge nor the experience to make the derogatory statements.
posted by Miko at 6:16 PM on July 14, 2005

A friend told me this (true) story:
He and a group of redneck guys were out duck hunting, one of them ( a great big guy) was a friend of a friend and was not known to the others. So (inevitably) one of these rednecks tells a racist joke and they're all laughing, except the big guy. He says "I don't think that's funny", still chuckling and smirking the jokester says "Why not?". The big guy replies "Because my wife is black". A deathly, uncomfortable silence, then profuse apologies follows. Unfortunately the guy's wife wasn't really black, but think of the thoughts going through that redneck's head with the insultee standing a couple feet away with a shotgun.
So maybe you could try "Hey, my (insert family member) is that race".
posted by 445supermag at 6:19 PM on July 14, 2005

Being sort of a retiring geek, if I'm in a position to be explaining this concept to someone, I like to start with the dictionary definition of 'casuistry.'

I then proceed to explain that judging people on a case-by-case basis is the basis of our justice system - because it's inherently fair. Stereotyping, on the other hand, takes the risk of judging some folks unfairly.

I agree with many of the above posters that some stereotypes - even racial, gender-, or ethnically based ones - can be true and useful without being offensive. However, it would not be correct to make this statement, or its inverse, about ALL stereotypes.

Would it?
posted by ikkyu2 at 6:32 PM on July 14, 2005

445supermag -- it didn't turn out that way in that case, but I've seen something deliciously similar twice. Both involved white co-workers who had daughters who were married to black husbands, and both had mixed-race grandchildren, and both times, no one in the room knew that when the racist comments were made.

The first time it was a particularly well-placed moment, as a white co-worker for some reason decided to comment on "the weird names black people give their children" -- to which the response was "Weird names, like Julian, my grandson?"
posted by Miko at 7:11 PM on July 14, 2005

As jdroth points out, stereotyping is common. It's also usually lazy: I've heard very few that aren't tired clich├ęs. In that case, mild sarcasm would be a good response, but I'd pick my battles.

If somebody has a tendency to parrot others, it's probably not worth commenting on. Similarly, if somebody says something that seems neutral rather than judgmental (e.g. "Asian kids seem to do so well academically"), you might let it pass. However, when you hear a comment so nasty or ignorant that it demands a response, or made by somebody who might be set straight, I'd take that as a cue to speak up.
posted by rob511 at 1:57 AM on July 15, 2005

For me, it's easy to say something when it's a friend or family - I usually bust out with "hello, we weren't raised to say things like that, we know better..."

But for me, the big challenge is in work situations. One of my co-workers said something racist at a business dinner last night and I didn't have it in me to call him out on it in front of his boss and some clients.
posted by superkim at 6:25 AM on July 15, 2005

If someone means to say that ALL people of a certain group share a characteristic, that's easily disproved. If someone means to say that MANY people of a certain group share a characteristic, that's much harder to disprove. Can anyone really argue that no patterns or trends occur when you categorize people into groups? Good luck. A statement doesn't necessarily become false just because it's a generalization.

Racism is an entirely separate matter. That doesn't need disproving. It's flat out hurtful.
posted by 4easypayments at 8:05 AM on July 15, 2005

I am most likely to dismiss stereotyping in a social setting by calling bullshit, in a friendly way, on the stereotyper. Mincing words like Mr. Van Driessen ("That's a *hurtful* thing to say, mmkay") will get you NO WHERE with that kind of person, and being an attack-dog PC scold will prove equally ineffective. Simply say "Ahh, that's bullshit, I know too many smart blacks (or whatever the offense is) to buy that line,". Or, "So cousin John's new co-worker is gay. Who gives a shit?"

I have had great success on several occasions using this approach. You can't coming across as a smug and superior school marm correcting a slow child if you want to succeed. You also cannot get mad if they disagree with you. Let it go.

Also, I have found that, for the most part, my cultivation of an ultra conventional appearance is a huge asset in this sort of situation. Hippy Q. McFreakington is changing NO minds at the family barbecue, or at the peace rally for that matter. Looking (and smelling) Like One of Them is half the battle folks. Wearing a crew cut is is like a flying a stealth bomber if you live in a red state like me.
posted by Scoo at 10:03 AM on July 15, 2005

Can anyone really argue that no patterns or trends occur when you categorize people into groups? Good luck. A statement doesn't necessarily become false just because it's a generalization.

Well, logically, yes it does -- a generalization is a false statement if you can find even one example in which the generalization does not hold true. But anyway, no one is arguing that no patterns emerge among communities. They certainly do. What I'm arguing is that there are useful, genuinely constructive ways of describing or asking about community patterns, and then there are ways where the speaker is clearly employing the stereotype to justify demeaning or dismissing the group being categorized. It's pretty easy to tell the difference.

The reason I'm speaking up about that line of reasoning is that prejudiced and racist people will often take shelter in it ("What, are you trying to say that black people never commit crimes? Because I can show you the statistics from my town and they commit more crimes per capita than whites.") This gambit puts the person arguing the opposite side on the defensive - the racist tries to force you to take an extreme position (Black people never commit crimes) which is logically untenable. Since you can't argue that, you're expected to give in to the racist's viewpoint ("OK, OK, so black people are more likely to be criminals"). But there is a huge, nuanced truth lying in between those extremes. When someone is not a racist, they will frame inquiries about behavior in communities very differently "I noticed that even though our town is 40% black, 45% of those arrested for a crime are black people. Why are arrests of blacks proportionally more frequent?" NOW you can get somewhere by looking for the deeper information. Is the police force racist, more likely to apprehend a black person on circumstantial evidence? Is tha black population in a different economic demographic than the white population? Is the white population primarily one that features extensive social control, like a Mormon community? Do the white neighborhoods get better police patrolling or have lower population density? When you get beyond simple correlation (which is what a stereotype is) you can find underlying conditions which contribute to variations in group behavior.

Avoiding blanket stereotypes and broad generalizations shows a true openness of intent. So a good rule of thumb: if you're not a racist, don't say things that a racist might say. Find a real way to get an understanding of what you notice.
posted by Miko at 12:08 PM on July 15, 2005

Might help, probably won't: The purpose of stereotypes is so that when you are forced to make a snap decision, you make a good decision. In a crisis, having your stereotypes accurate, insightful, and not over-generalised can potentially be the difference between life and death. In other words, the accuracy of your stereotypes is something to strive for, and even take pride in the degree to whcih your snap judgements are reliable.
Thus, if a stereotype leads to poor judgements or mischaracterizations, and you don't immediately refine it or abandon it, your thinking is lame and substandard. If persuasion and accusation doesn't work, sniggering at clealy poor judgement, and noting "I sure hope my life never depends on you in a crisis" might :-)

But probably won't. :)
posted by -harlequin- at 2:27 AM on July 16, 2005

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