Need a little break from online classes and quarantine monotony? Not to worry, here’s some trivial food for thought! Today, we’re going to explore the complex subject of ‘stereotypes’.
First off, what exactly is a stereotype and why do we use them?
A stereotype is an over-generalised, widely accepted opinion, notion, image or idea about a person, place, or thing. To put it lightly, it’s a common ‘misconception’ associated with traits of individuals or groups. According to Simply Psychology, we use stereotypes to simplify our social world and reduce the amount of processing (i.e. thinking) we have to do when meeting a new person by categorising them under a ‘preconceived marker’ of similar attributes, features, or attitudes that we observe.
Whether you’re a freshman settling in your first few weeks of college or a senior soon-to-be wrapping up academic pursuits, you're definitely no stranger to student stereotypes.
Here are some you’ll have come across:
“Asians are good at Math”
“Girls are bad drivers”
“An arts degree is useless”
“Wearing Glasses = Smart”
“You go to Taylor’s? You must be a ‘Bangsar kid’ then!”
Bet some of these stung, right? Or perhaps you’re guilty of using them in your daily life?
It really depends on the context and the situation. While all stereotypes aren’t necessarily harmful, they aren’t inherently healthy depictions of reality either.
Possible Identity Crisis
Stereotypes shape our perceptions of ourselves and those around us. When you define a person solely by the stereotype automatically attached to them, you don’t see the person’s individuality beyond their ‘label’ nor allow them to be individuals by their own right. In doing this, you rob them of other aspects of their identity and self. It may not be intentional or non-deliberate at most times, however it creates paths of self-doubt and identity turbulence.
After all, how do you really forge your identity when you're constantly battling the stereotypes thrown at you?
A very common example is one associated with body types. Regardless of your body sizes whether you’re skinny or thick, they are often attached with generalisations that implies something is ‘wrong’ with how you consume food. This potentially leads to development of eating disorders and/or heightened self-consciousness when in truth, lots of factors contribute to the state of body mass, and not just dietary habits.
Essentially, identity is a social construct produced from interactions and experiences with others. But when fed with the narrative that you’ll only amount to your stereotype, your individual development is stunted in the long run. What’s more, you could even develop multiple identities over time, some of them reflecting your ‘true self’ and others reflecting how society wants to perceive you. How do you figure out which ones to keep and which ones to discard? That’s when it turns into a crisis.
You can read more on how identity is ruled by stereotypes here.
The Stereotype Threat
Stereotypes can plant seedlings of insecurity which flower over time. For an instance, when you’re stereotyped over and over again, you begin to internalise the negative characteristics associated with the stereotype and allow them to become ‘self-fulfilled prophecies’. This is referred to as a Stereotype Threat. People who face a stereotype threat are always in fear of doing something that could potentially confirm a negative stereotype. In the process, it can harm the self-esteem and performance of affected individuals as they believe their abilities or traits are restricted to the moulds of their stereotype.
Social Classification and Isolation
According to Psychology Today, research shows that stereotypes often pave way for intergroup hostility and toxic prejudices around age, race, and other social distinctions. Social circles can be created based on common stereotypes or shared interests. Especially in a classroom where several stereotypes exist (e.g. the Nerd, the Slacker, the Weeb, the Party Animal), you expect to stick to people that fit the same bill as yourself but that, in turn, hinders diversity and mixed friend groups. Also what happens if you don’t fit in at all with the commonality? What happens when your stereotype does not belong anywhere in the classroom scene? That sets you down the road for isolation and feeling like an outcast.
Possibly. This also depends on context and situation as well. Positive stereotypes prop up favourable generalisations or statements that suggest excellence of the targeted group. For an instance, the stereotype of Asians ‘being good at academics’ can be seen as complimentary as it uplifts the general view of Asian intellect. However, while some positive stereotypes could be intended as ‘compliments’ the targets of such stereotypes can feel depersonalized as if they are being acknowledged exclusively through their category membership. Some stereotypes don’t necessarily have negative connotations attached to them but could cause harm depending on how it is perceived. Statements like ‘you did well for a woman’, may not be intended to be sexist, but can incite anger from the female population because it implies their gender is a hindrance.
There are three moderators used to decipher if a positive stereotype will have a favourable or harmful reception:
1. Consider how the stereotype is stated
The right wording is important; stick to empowering and inclusive language ALWAYS
2. Who is stating the stereotype
If you’re an ‘outgroup’ member not related to the stereotype in any manner, the positive stereotype can be seen as prejudice.
3. Which cultural context is the stereotype presented
For e.g. American stereotypes are not parallel to Asian stereotypes so best avoid mixing them up.
Read up more on Positive Stereotypes here.
The only way positive stereotypes can be beneficial is when it’s subtle and not blatantly implied, but that itself is not easy to differentiate for each and every situation.
So what can you do?
It is normal to stereotype, after all no matter how open-minded we are, we all have unconscious biases. But imagine being judged and placed under a marker or label before even getting a chance to flesh out your narrative. Imagine being denied your individuality, your creativity and your uniqueness just because your features or traits ‘fit the criteria’ of the stereotype.
Society often uses stereotypes to excuse targeted discrimination and it’s time we understand how volatile such practices are. In this era of social acceptance, we need to take a better stand towards maintaining pleasantries in a student community.
Lastly, don’t live in the shadow of your stereotype. Perceive the world around you with your own eyes. Make judgements based on your own experience. Forge your identity with your own pencil. And live on your own terms.
Phew… If you’ve read up till here, congrats you’ve learned something new!
Thanks for coming along this intensely philosophical journey and make sure to put your new-found knowledge to practice!
Karen Grace Prince is currently pursuing a Bachelor's Degree in Mass Communication (Honours). She is also the Director of Events Committee for the Taylor's Model United Nations Club (TLMUN) and Director of Ext. Operations for TLMUN 2020 Conference Secretariat Team.