Let’s Deconstruct the Stereotype – Dr. Julia Wai-Yin So

In the 1960s, sociologist Harold Garfinkel founded a new field of inquiry called ethnomethodology. As such, Garfinkel uses the term indexing to describe how we depend on whatever information and experience we have to make sense of every social context. We call this social cues. For example, when a man in the US meets a person who is wearing a dress and a pair of high heels while carrying a lady’s purse, the man instantly concludes that this is a woman and therefore will instantaneously interact with this person according to the social etiquette between a man and a woman.

Garfinkel calls such mental exercise indexing. When we are unaware of social cues because we have not had interaction with members of a particular social group, we would depend on the common information available, whether true or not. This is when stereotyping comes into play.

What is stereotype? In general, it is an erroneous generalization of a certain social group. In another word, it is a belief. According to psychologist Gordon Allport’s 1950 world renown book, The Nature of Prejudice, belief is one of the two essential elements of prejudice. The other element is attitude which is closely influenced by belief. In this context, psychologists of recent decades reaffirm the influence of one’s belief and/or experience on attitude which in turn can have a powerful impact on one’s behaviors.

Most of the time, we do not see ourselves being prejudicial. However, we do tend to stereotype others, whether consciously or unconsciously. When we think of us stereotyping a particular social group, we might want to ask ourselves where that belief comes from. Did it come from our one negative personal experience with a member of a certain social group? Or were we socialized to believe in the stereotype of a particular social group?

While tracing the sources of our stereotype, we can apply the logic of inductive and deductive reasoning. Both are different ways of logical thinking that many of us use to reach to a conclusion. Inductive reasoning is reaching a conclusion using our observation or experience while deductive reasoning is using our belief to rationalize our conclusion. Following such logic, we can see that inductive stereotype originates from our personal experiences whereas deductive stereotype comes from our belief that has been socialized by our environment such as our family, our peers, the television, or the Internet. For example, my previous business partner, who was an African American, had double-crossed me in our business that led to my bankruptcy. Since then, I stopped doing business with African Americans because of my one bad experience with one African American. I concluded that all African Americans are dishonest people.

In another situation, I once dated a Latino who cheated on me. Afterward, I avoided dating Latinos because of one bad experience as I concluded that all Latinos are womanizers. Both are examples of inductive stereotyping as I stereotype the entire social group because of one negative experience with a member of the social group. With respect to deductive stereotype, while I have a few friends who are African Americans, I have also avoided doing business with them because I have heard that they are dishonest people. Similarly, I avoid dating Latinos because I have heard that they are womanizers and that they do not respect women in general. In either case, do I really know for a fact that African Americans are dishonest or Latinos are womanizers? I don’t. Unfortunately, my belief affects my attitude that influences my behavior. Consequently, I became prejudiced against an entire social group.

Does it matter where our stereotype comes from? Only if we want to reduce or even eliminate the common practice of stereotype. Why should I bother if the stereotype does not affect me or the social group that I belong to? Unfortunately, the implication is huge. First of all, if we, as an individual, do not fight stereotype, not only do we agree to the stereotype on a micro level, but also shapes how we see ourselves and others. Consequently, we participate in re-constructing and reproducing stereotype on a macro level.

Furthermore, stereotype provides society an explanation about the misfortune experienced by a specific social group such as the poor is poor because they are lazy or the majority of those incarcerated are Blacks  because they are aggressive or Latino children are dropping out of school because their culture does not value education.  Again, such erroneous belief reinforces the common misperception of certain social group, provides a convincing narrative to rationalize social inequality and ultimately and unfortunately perpetuates systemic racism, sexism, and classism.

To prevent stereotyping from escalating to the level of prejudice, we must stop stereotyping others ourselves. This requires us to constantly self-reflect so to identify the source of our stereotype (i.e. our erroneous belief). Recognizing the source of our stereotype would help us to better understand the irrational reasoning behind our belief and thus would make it easier to discontinue the practice.

We also have to stand up for others when they are being stereotyped by correcting the speaker. Being an ally requires courage and a strong sense of social justice. The next step is to treat each person as a unique individual, rather than a member of a social group. Notwithstanding a seemingly natural habit for us to interact with anyone based on indexing, treating that person as a unique human being takes some conscious effort on our part. After all, every one of us deserves to be treated with dignity.

Stop stereotyping is the responsibility of each of us, especially when we think about the profound ramification of such practice to our society.

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Also by Dr. Julia Wai-Yin So: Understanding Asian American Communication

Dr. Julia Wai-Yin So

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