Understanding Stereotypes: How stereotypes have made society follow distinctive rules and patterns

Stereotypes must have been the superficial truth at one point in time for them to have become so ingrained and used as an explanation. Instead of stereotypes being reflections of what we see in front of us, they change how we perceive the world. Overtime, the patterns we see morph into unspoken societal rules that become self-reinforcing because we try to predict how others will behave and how we should in return. Therefore, I intend to explore how and why these stereotypes emerged and how they impact on everyday social behaviour.

On a day-to-day basis, stereotypes are thought to concern race which, as a socio-historical concept, makes stereotyping a phenomenon we use to navigate an increasingly complex world. Race is relatively modern since it was originally used to distinguish what rights the natives of the ‘New World’ had in terms of property, which included themselves, and land. It subsequently took on a biological definition but scholars and politicians alike still debate over its definition as it changed over time. Certainly it has defied simply biological terms but its exact scientific meaning will probably never be finalized since generations of evolving genes morphing the biology – perhaps the human gene pool was never meant to be categorized so blatantly in terms of just race. The colonialists categorized the natives into a different race because a different ‘species’ of human had never been discovered before. This challenged all theories of God and the creation of man at the time so whether the natives were even human and thus to what type of treatment they should be subjected.

Stereotypes therefore became a method to navigating an ever increasing number of different social situations. By categorizing a culture into preconceived ideas, which are generalized to encompass the entire people in question, we assume they have certain characteristics but still make judgments not based entirely on fact – or which are based on nothing at all. Stereotypes have roots in experiences we have had ourselves, from reading, watching, and learning from those around us. When we learn, we then put those thoughts into practice and act upon them. For example, if an Asian man approaches us, many would believe he would be Chinese and not speak much English. Of course this is one hypothetical situation which one person would think, hence the word ‘many’, but everyone would approach the situation differently, maybe they can speak English or we can speak Mandarin. Many may automatically think the person in question would not speak English so as not to embarrass them when they attempt to start a conversation and discover they can’t sustain it. However, the embarrassment may reverse if English is actually their first language. Statistically speaking, less than 1% of mainland China are English ‘speakers’ and 3% are English ‘learners’ so the stereotype does have some weight. These figures do not include those brought up where English is typically the first language or very widely spoken. Asian Americans make up 5.6% of the population yet only 0.62% of those speak some varieties Chinese [1] so the assumption the person stated earlier would speak English when in America is statistically accurate as well as when in China. Still, there are of course exceptions and when immersed in a new culture people alter the way they think so the differences aren’t so shocking.This in itself is a simple stereotype which has statistical evidence to back up the behavior but Asian stereotypes which generalize can be damaging. Many Westerners lump together the ‘typically Asian’ cultures together into stereotypes that can’t be correct because the cultures are so diverse. For instance, the Japanese bow as a greeting more so than the Chinese do, to the untrained eye the two populations may look the same (due to the stereotypical and thus recognizable epicanthic folds) but natives can pick the other out like a blonde in a crowd of brunettes. People use stereotypes so they can have an idea on how to behave appropriately when faced with cultures they do not necessarily know sufficiently so we have made rules, even though they are often not based on statistical evidence, which help us to interact with others on a perceivably improved level.

Nevertheless, stereotypes start impacting our behavior most when they appear out of fear of the minority. In 1882 the Chinese Exclusion Act stated all Chinese labour immigrants were prohibited but the accompanying political cartoons reveal the fear of the time. They depict Uncle Sam kicking out the Chinese who are represented as repulsively vermin-like with stereotypical features in their dress and hairstyle. For example, the queue is a traditional hairstyle worn by Manchu men and was imposed in the Han people during the Qing dynasty which ruled from 1644 to 1912 and has since appeared in political cartoons to represent the Chinese community. This is a damaging stereotype since people then created a link between the people and the image which in turn causes discrimination, whether it be implicit or explicit, and prejudiced view and behavior.

The 1882 Chinese Exclusion Act was discrimination against Chinese labour immigrants because it was a law tailored to exclude a particular ethnic group and was the first federal law of its kind. Since then there having been many federal laws surrounding discrimination, the most impacting modern day example being Affirmative action. It was first introduced to equalize against historic discrimination against minorities and women and included a number of government enforced quotas on the percentage of women and minorities in the workplace and high education. There have been may scholars and politicians who believe Affirmative action policies are outdated and encourage reverse discrimination but it does change people’s behavior towards minorities especially including racially charged attacks. However, it was also just announced for the first time in Harvard University’s history the majority of its incoming class is non-white, a very important milestone but on the other hand the US Justice Department is investigating universities who have affirmative action policies which discriminate against white applicants. Whilst this is not an example of stereotyping, it has backgrounds in hundreds of years in history of discrimination and fear because of stereotypes yet it seems they still have the same impact on human behavior today.

Overall, stereotypes make society follow distinctive rules and patterns since the world is becoming more connected and we find we communicate with people from other cultures more. People therefore use stereotypes so they can interact more fluently and have a deeper relationship between two cultures so stereotypes change our behaviour for positive reasons. However, stereotypes are also largely negative since they hold roots in racially discriminate history where stereotypes were used to scaremonger and caused bias which has altered opinions and conduct throughout human history and unfortunately even today.

[1] (Voiceboxer, 2016)


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Team, V. (2016, 02 25). English in China. Retrieved 08 3, 2017, from Voiceboxer : http://voiceboxer.com/english-in-china/