The Dangers of Stereotyping

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In the United States, stereotyping of immigrants, for example, has a time-tested character. Asians have been stereotyped on account of a perceived superiority in Mathematics, those of Irish descent are depicted as invariably drunk and Hispanic immigrants are portrayed as undeniably lazy, and women cause more car-related accidents than men behind the wheel (Smith). Stereotypes like these not only begin to take on more hostile forms and marginalizing tones but also lack a sound foundation in empirical research for the most part. As applied to immigrants or individuals of varying socio-ethnic identity in particular, the concern is that these stereotypes are so widespread that they have inhibited and will continue to inhibit their meaningful integration into American society.

The difficulty in curtailing the kind of stereotyping that threatens to detrimentally impact children is that some of these stereotypes have been found to have some basis in reality and history. Nevertheless, social scientists have made clear that to propagate them results in lowered self-confidence and self-esteem, especially for already marginalized social classes, such as undocumented immigrants. For Elizabeth Messina, while a historical basis for certain stereotypes can exist, their excessive over-exposure at the hands of the media can have devastating consequences for children inundated with negative impressions of their heritage (Messina, 2004). Messina speaks to the degree to which Italian-American have been stereotyped through shows like The Sopranos and Jersey Shore. While both these shows were and are wildly popular, the Italian-American cultural qualities addressed by them are not always of the savory kind, though they do have some basis in the real. The question then becomes this: to what extent is it acceptable to promote certain socio-cultural stereotypes for purposes of social empowerment and when does this purpose transform into one that threatens the integrity of our social fabric?

Modern research further suggests that media-driven stereotyping of certain immigrant groups, regardless of propriety or accuracy, has created a climate ripe for the misimpression that immigrants are less than interested in integration into American Society through participation in socio-cultural norms. Rivadeneyera addresses the series Modern Family in identifying its depiction of Latino characters as definitively stereotypical, but not necessarily in such a way as would harm a young Hispanic viewer’s sense of self.: “one may consider it to be a very negative and stereotypical portrayal of Latinos, whereas the other may see it as positive and empowering” (Rivadeneyera, 2006). To this end, Rivadeneyera suggests that it is the receptivity of the stereotyped party to the stereotype itself that determines the extent to which the viewer may be negatively impacted by it in his/her formative stages. In this sense, certain stereotypes are likely to be innocuous in that their basis in reality is so sound as to function as a kind of point of cultural identification and empowerment.

However, gratuitous stereotyping reflects the kind of cultural marginalization that is invariably harmful to young citizens seeking to assimilate their socio-cultural heritage into the American Collective. In an increasing age of gender-consciousness, there is a trend to, for example, unduly exploit the extent to which one individual or another does not fit neatly into a given stereotype (Hermes, 2010). For example, Lena Dunham of HBO’s Girls is unabashedly overweight and objectively unattractive in a traditional sense. As such, for her Vogue Magazine photo-shoot, Ms. Dunham was adorned with enough make-up and her photos with enough electronic adjustments to better assimilate her into the social stratosphere preferred by Vogue’s clientele. The overly zealous attempts to fit females such as Ms. Dunham into a cookie-cutter stereotype of thin and doll-like can only have negative effects on a generation of young women who are already inundated by gender-specific roles and stereotypes having to do with physical appearance.

Similarly, the manner in which White women are perceived by men of color indicates the kind of subversive and obscure stereotyping that threatens to objectify particular members of a given social class. In overwhelming numbers, Black men perceive White women in a very particularized way that threatens to mark them as objects even more ripe for objectification than they already are by virtue of traditionally posited gendered norms and roles (Conley, 2013). In other words, for whatever reason, Black men tend to perceive White women in a manner that regards them more as objects of beauty with limited intellect and moral character than as humans. Moving forward, it is important that the roots of this brand of stereotyping are identified in such a way as allows for them to be addressed in an organized fashion. Otherwise, these kinds of “hidden” stereotypes will work with more pervasive ones to wholly erode the fabric of our multicultural society, as young people are over-exposed to them through media-based portrayals.

Ultimately, the spectrum of stereotypes is vast and often discriminating. Nevertheless, there are forms of stereotyping that serve to empower the stereotyped party, as opposed to those which serve primarily to marginalize that already socially isolated party. In certain instances, this latter group of stereotypes can have debilitating effects on a child’s capacity for integration of his/her socio-cultural heritage into his/her American mode of social identification. In order to best determine when stereotyping is not only appropriate but necessary and when it is entirely unacceptable, research must be done into the settings in which these stereotypes most often take place. One such setting is the media-driven ones of television and popular print culture, through which stereotypes are routinely propagated without regard for the extent to which they may or may not be impacting young people’s perceptions and impressions of themselves, as applied to a future in which they will be expected to cultivate an identity that honors both their socio-cultural foundations and the more American ones through which they engage in daily life.

References

Conley, T.D. (2013). “Beautiful, self-absorbed, and shallow: people of color perceive white women as an ethnically marked category.” Journal Of Applied Social Psychology, 43(1), 45-56

Hermes, Joke. (2010). “On stereotypes, media and redressing gendered social inequality.” Contemporary Readings In Law & Social Justice, 2(2), 181-187.

Messina, E.G. (2004). Psychological perspectives on the stigmatization of Italian Americans in the American media. In R. Marchesani, & M. Stern, (Eds.), Saints and Rogues: Conflicts and Convergence in Psychotherapy (pp. 87-121)

Rivadeneyra, R. (2006). “Do you see what I see? Latino Americans’ perceptions of the images on television.” Journal of Adolescent Research, 21, 393-414.