© William Murphy via Creative Commons

“Positive” Stereotyping: Jeopardizing Multiculturalism in the Same Way as Traditional Stereotyping

It is a well known fact that stereotypes do not accurately represent a group of people. But are people on the same page when it comes to so called “positive” stereotypes? An example of this could be a statement like “All Asians are smart” or “all Hispanic women are well-endowed.” Is it just as harmful to be perpetuating these stereotypes as it is to be spreading the negative ones? It is easy to point out when a TV show or joke is promoting a stereotype, but it is not as easy to detect how “positive stereotypes” are hurting the groups that they are attached to.

Let’s dissect the stereotype that “all Asians are smart”.  A lot of stereotypes are masked by being seemingly positive. However, this does not make the statement any less offensive. Much of this stereotype is predicated on the fact that many people of Asian descent are enrolled at ivy league colleges and/or work in high paying careers as scientists, engineers, or in technology. However, if you are Asian and you do not fall into these narrowly defined categories of what it means to be smart, are you Asian? Even worse, does this make you a “bad Asian”? It is never productive to place any kind of assumptions on a group of people because it only seeks to further divide the races whether your judgments are “positive” or negative. We also have to account for the fact that stereotypes promote a biological difference between races. If that is true, than people can make a case for why certain races are better – more worthy inherently.

In 2013, a study was done in the Journal of Personality and Social PsychologyJohn Oliver Syi and Sapna Cheryan sought to examine the question: “Does hearing a positive stereotype have the opposite effect?” (Psychology Today).

The experiment was conducted in the following manner.

Asian Americans were brought to the lab where they engaged in a task along with a White participant (who was actually one of the experimenters posing as a participant).  In the experiment, each participant was going to fill out a packet.  One packet had math problems in it, while the other had verbal problems in it.  After a rigged coin flip to make the selection process appear random, the White participant was chosen to select who would fill out each packet. (Psychology Today)

 In the control condition, the White participant handed the math packet to the Asian participant and said, “How about you take this packet, and I’ll work on this one.”  In the positive stereotype condition, the White participant said, “I know all Asians are good at math, how about you take the math packet.  I’ll work on this one” (Psychology Today).

The findings were that positive stereotypes made by the white partners made Asian participants trust their white partners less. The general consensus was that these types of assumptions “made people feel less like an individual”. This experiment helps us to understand how positive stereotyping promotes segregation and creates an us-versus-them environment since many Asian participants confessed that the assumptions made by their white partners disregarded the fact that they are Asian and American (Psychology Today).

Another element to understanding stereotypes is that they tend to be linked to culture; what our cultures teach us plays a big factor in how we navigate the world and make decisions. Characteristics that are common among certain races are often used to make vast generalizations. It may not be that Asians are inherently more intelligent than the rest of us, but rather their cultural teachings prompts certain behaviors. These behaviors are what people mistake for biologic factors and thus stereotyping occurs. For centuries, the role of autonomy and individualism in Chinese communities has been debated. In the simplest of terms, individualism is not part of their cultural repertoire. The emphasis of community over the individual in China is important to understanding positive stereotyping because it means that many people of Asian descent will be compelled to choose professions that do not just serve their personal interests, but that will offer them stability and a means to support their families. In this sense, it is probable that Asian-Americans will seek out higher paying jobs – jobs that require more schooling and specific skill-sets.

In 1992, Barbara Ehrenreich coined the term “cultural baggage” to explain her sense of individualism and non-ethnicity as a tradition in and of itself. Ehrenreich’s own experience with cultural baggage was that her’s was a tradition adopted by her ancestor of forging their own paths and improving their rituals as they related to things like cooking and cleaning with each new generation. This idea of cultural baggage exists within all ethnic groups and may help to explain how stereotypes surface. Cultural baggage subconsciously effects our decisions and what types of roles we inhabit in society – it also allows generalizations and stereotyping to seep in. The cultural baggage that we carry with us is the seed for a stereotype, but it of course does not justify it. Critical to creating unbiased societies is understanding how cultural baggage causes our subconscious behaviors. We must account for factors beyond the obvious when we investigate the origin of a stereotype, like the influence of culture.

I also gave the example of “all Hispanic women are well-endowed”. It is perhaps easier to detect the negative side affects in this example. It’s a crap-shoot when it comes to genes and no one can predict what a person will look like based solely on the ethnic background of the parents. There are also all kinds of Hispanic people from different countries and the predominant physical features vary from one place to another. However, the most damaging part of this statement is that it boils down all people of Hispanic decent into one mass-race that does not account for the individual cultures that exist within the term Hispanic. People should be recognized not as they relate to an ethnic group or country but as a unique individual because we are all hybrids of our own races, inhabiting a mix of different geographic backgrounds. It is incredibly difficult to find someone who is a “pure” form of any race because race refers to a color, not a culture, which are infinite.

Our institutions and society overall should be working to achieve a standard by which everyone is judged on a case-by-case basis and not by a generalization even if it appears to be a positive one on the outlook. The most degrading thing that a stereotype or generalization does is to disregard every other aspect of a person besides what that stereotype dictates. In this sense, both “positive” and negative stereotyping is damaging. Stereotyping is inherently harmful because of the way it places people into static categories and works to separate us purely on a racial basis. This can occur from any type of generalization: “positive” or negative.