I think the importance of stereotypes and their existence become greatly undervalued. If you ask someone why a stereotype is bad your general response would be something along the lines of 'Well it isn't polite, or nice." Which of course opens the doorway of using them when you intentionally want to be mean or seen as bad. It becomes a matter of opinion on civility instead of a matter of fact in regards to inequality systems. Make no mistake about it; stereotypes have very little to do with civility and a whole lot more to do with the maintaining of inequality systems.
Inequality systems are an interesting thing. In the current text I am reading "The Social Construction of Difference and Inequality" there is an analogy that is given by Marilyn Frye that I find to be very appropriate:
"Consider a birdcage. If you look very closely at just one wire in the cage, you cannot see the other wires.” When the cage is observed so closely, it’s unclear why a bird—eager to escape—wouldn’t just fly around the wire. It’s necessary to step back and look at the entire cage. “It is perfectly obvious that the bird is surrounded by a network of systematically related barriers, no one of which could be the least hindrance to its flight, but which, by their relations to each other, are as confining as the walls of a dungeon” (Ore, 2003)
The interesting aspect of inequality systems is that people have a tendency to deny their existence. The common perceptions among average Americans are that if a certain sector of the population is not successful it is through their own lack of desire, initiative, and drive. According to the most privileged Americans, the playing field is level. This is just the idea that the inequality maintenance system needs to survive. This perception of falsified equality. Yet in language, media, and legislation inequality thrives, and has convinced some that the perceptions given are the truth of the tale. Stereotypes then become even more invasive than these other influences because stereotypes are what a person is involved with on a psychic level and it becomes condoned and supported by these things. This causes an invalidated truth to take root and be accepted as a validated truth.
Stereotypes are formed because we as people need to isolate things; assemble patterns. That's what we do, and how we learn. Just in case no one has noticed, humanity is in a heap of trouble. We have compounding problems from our environment to our economy. The issue is that likeminded groups stick together. We form these pockets of humanity, and these pockets only like to allow other likeminded individuals in them. We all do it. However, like minded individuals are what got us into this situation in the first place. Diversity is the only answer now. Different heads need to be thinking about our issues from different perspectives of thought. No individual group is going to come up with an adequate solution. They can't. The only people they bounce ideas off of are just like them, and they see things too similarly. If they had a viable answer we wouldn't be in such a quandary.
Stereotypes are the root of all perspective evil because they incorporate assumptions about a whole that is usually only applicable to a few. However with this assumption in place, the perspective of the person is set and fixed to find evidence of this assumption in everything. It's our ability to create patterns used against us. Even if the stereotype is obviously not true in a person, we are actively looking for it to the point that another unrelated aspect of them seems to reinforce the stereotype. It's us typecasting each other, building that pattern.
Roots of stereotypes come from culture, life experiences, and media. These are the things that shape us that were in place before we are even conscious of what we are or who we are going to be. The surrounding infrastructure that facilitated your birth. We would all be different people had we been born in the early 1800s instead of now.
Culture is the thing your family instilled in you and your beliefs. This includes religion, location, racial identity, socioeconomic status, acceptable behaviors and rewarded ideas. These are all the factors that those before you put into place. My foundation was set by a mother who raised me to believe that as a general rule people considered 'white' would always look down on me, but this was should not be the case. They are no different than us, but they will always act like they are. Already I have a cultural perspective that says this type of person is always going to look down on me, but they are foolish for it. There is no difference between them and me. This colors all interactions I have with people that are considered 'white'. Does this person disapprove of what I am doing because as a woman who is 'not white' I should not be doing this because it implies equality?
This is the first step, so try to really dig into this concept and formulate what was presented to you as far as ethnic, class, financial, gender, and sexuality based expectations. What were these mostly unspoken rules of what your family and friends expected from you at the very beginning of your life? What was fair and what was based solely on stereotypes and uninformed assumptions?
With the example set by your culture you have a certain perspective of the world. You see it with lenses colored by your culture. Situations that would seem one way to one person is actually completely different for someone else. When I was accused of cheating on my aptitude test in elementary school the teacher probably noticed me looking around because I do, a lot, always have. I didn't look for answers. I was just looking at the other kids because I was new and trying to figure out my new environment. When the scores came in, she confronted my mother about this. I felt guilty because my understanding was ‘looking around was bad’. When my mother found out and the teacher tried to explain, my mother got angry just like she does when she complains about white people, and tells me that I won't be attending that school anymore. This reinforces the stereotype that my mother has ingrained in me. This is an example of a life experience that can be seen from that cultural perspective. Now I have an instance where it can be perceived that a ‘white’ authority figure has in fact 'looked down' on me because of my 'non-white' status as she openly questioned whether I was capable of achieving this aptitude score.
Media is a growing issue for stereotyping because it is so ingrained in our lives now. The messages that are being generated by advertisers and media outlets is shameful because the generation that was raised by television is now letting their children be raised by the internet. Should advertisers and content creators be more discriminating, yes, will they, no. They aren't trying to raise your kid right; they're trying to raise your kid to buy what they're selling. Question any and all media no matter what is being said and no matter who is saying it. All media can be traced to 6 corporations. http://www.newint.org/magazine/ni333-media.pdf With that small amount of diversity, everything is being reported from a very limited and specific social perspective.
The trunk is what the roots feed, it's the person you are, and how you react and respond to others in day to day activities. The areas this effects are social, professional, and private aspects of you. In some situations this branches out to virtual versions of you. So think of it as the social you, for friends and group settings; the professional you for the sake of your career or livelihood, and the private you which are the aspects that only close personal people know or no one at all including you even understand. Then there is the advent of this virtual you. The person you project yourself as in cyberspace.
You choose to be in certain areas. Certain groups of people make you feel comfortable or uncomfortable. People create hives and groups based on affinity and relation. Usually these are dens of like-mindedness where ideas are identical and mirrored. These mirrored ideas reinforce stereotypes because they are never challenged.
While your job can create pockets of diversity, the understanding is that this is a ‘working you’, and not truly who you are. At work we respond sometimes as we must to fulfill the job expectations denying personal concerns. Most businesses are not expansive enough to need varying degrees of ability and talent with the exception of some high end performance and technology fields. Business autonomy sometimes makes it unnecessary for these different parts to fully interact. Working day to day while having certain stereotypes in mind causes you to see co-workers in a certain light as well. What is just playful banter can be misconstrued as an insult because of this. Stereotypes may be jarred a bit, but never disavowed because everyone is at work, and the actual face of who they are is not visible. Some fields are so devoid of diversity that even if people interacted with everyone they would see very little difference in ideologies. People who like to do certain work, or have to do certain jobs, have similar ideas and perspectives.
In the deep dark parts of ourselves we know what we truly believe. We believe what we've been shown through media, culture, and life experiences. Patterns develop that lead to who we are and manifest as the decisions and actions taken in our personal time. This is where stereotypes truly fester because our time can be spent in any way we would like. We guide ourselves inside of our own heads; this manifests in habits, likes and dislikes; our dreams. Our minds are our own, and they can either be cultivated or left barren.
The interesting thing about being virtual is the assumption that it creates anonymity. As a programmer I'm here to tell you it doesn’t. Web bots know you're IP address, with that they can find anything and everything they need to know about you. Just hope that no one wants to find you because it isn't difficult if you know how to look.
Online combines aspects of you and content creation. Media intermixes with self and amplifies self. In no other venue will you find more stereotypes being generated, accepted, and passed about freely as if they are actual facts than online. Then the issue becomes that a consensus has been formed, and together through another broader form of socialized communication, a body of evidence has been built and seems airtight. However if you apply all that came before this step, you can see why it works out like that. Now the stereotyped are accepting the labels, the typecasting, and are in fact living to make the stereotypes as real as possible, like some odd form of nihilistic approval seeking.
The result of the roots and the trunk are the branches. This is the active part that the person themselves take in creating the stereotype and regenerating it over and over again. This is the truth of what you believe in habits and nuances that are influencing other people, and reinforcing a certain perspective of an issue adjusting how you respond to them in the real world. You don't have to be a politician or someone in power for this to be effective. Just another person and it's done. This is where social expectations change the course of your actions when you are placed in stereotype forming or breaking situations. Here is when your need to act or fear of acting becomes a crucial determination of your true stance on the issue and ultimately your role. This is where the company you keep sets an example. As human beings we are either reinforcing stereotypes or we are breaking them. There is no passive in-between. Fence sitting is just the same as reinforcing them. People can ascertain your ability to accept others by the things you do, and the things you don't. Limitations, drawbacks, and misunderstandings are created by rating things in quality by untested assumptions.
The idea is that these stereotypes should become leaves if you do a thorough analysis of your thoughts, ideas, and behaviors. They should grow, be tested, and fall away so that new ones can form, because unfortunately that is part of the human experience. There will always be stereotypes. It is the individual's choice if they would like to be a stereotype rock or a tree, always growing, always changing, always adapting.
Ore, Tracy E., ed. 2003. The Social Construction of Difference and Inequality: Race, Class, Gender, and Sexuality. New York: McGraw-Hill.
Amazing Tree image courtesy of http://www.sharenator.com/Amazing_Trees_1/#/amazing_tree-5.html
Multicultural image courtesy of