From Stereotypes to Bigotry

  Dr. C. George Boeree


We have an often dramatic example of the use of contrasts in anticipation of people in our tendency to use  stereotypes.   A stereotype is a relatively simple and inflexible set of traits consistently applied to some category of people:  Men are aggressive and oversexed; Women are weak and talkative; Fat people are jolly and lazy; The Dutch are very clean but real cheapskates.

Stereotyping is a normal part of our functioning -- simplifying things a bit helps us to keep track of all the complexities of social life.  It's okay as long as reality remains the ultimate arbiter of truth.  But that is often not the case.  Here are a few of the potential pitfalls:

1.   Sweeping generalization:   Taking the traits associated with a group and forcing them onto an individual who belongs to that group.  An individual member of a group need not reflect the traits associated with the group, even if those traits are accurate.  Norms need not be adhered to; averages are fictions.  Your author is a chubby person, so allow me to use "fat people" as the example:  We may have good reason to believe that fat people are slow.  Yet I have met fat people who can trounce skinny ones on the tennis court!  How would you like to be denied a job because your appearance suggests to the employer that you won't work efficiently?

2.   Hasty generalization:   Taking the traits of an individual and assuming they apply to all members of his or her group.  We often build our stereotypes on the flimsiest of foundations, such as the following.

 Second-hand information:   Many, if not most, stereotypes are based on what others tell us--our families, teachers, friends, media, etc.--who may, in fact, have heard it from someone else again.  Where did you get that stereotype of Arabs, for example?  Have you actually met an Arab?  How well did you get to know them, if you did?

 Out-dated information:   Even if the second-hand information contains some truth, it may well be based on experiences of long ago.  Do Arabs still --  or did they ever -- live in tents?  Or is this something you saw in old movies?  Many stereotypes are rooted in the hatreds towards immigrant groups 100 or more years ago.

 Limited samples:   Whether the stereotype is second-hand or is based on personal experience, it may well be based on limited experience with the group in question.  If you have indeed met some Arabs, how many have you met, and are they a representative population?

Or take Italian food:  Most Americans think of Italian food as involving pasta, olive oil, and tomato sauce; in fact, much Italian food is a matter of bread, fish, butter, and white sauce.  Most immigrants to the U.S. were from the southern regions of Italy, and that is the "sample" of cooking we are familiar with!

 Vividness:   What is most noticeable about a group, what makes them more different from ourselves or others, is often falsely considered to be "normal."  Arabs are oil-rich, the Dutch wear wooden shoes, American Indians wear feathers...all three of these are exceptional, yet, because they are distinctive, they stick in our minds.

Polynesians are sensual, Japanese extremely polite... even when the characteristics contain a certain amount of truth, they often hide other, equally true, characteristics.  The Polynesians, for example, have some pretty strict rules about modesty, and the Japanese can be very direct, even cruel, when dealing with outsiders.

3.   Unjustified inferences:   We add information that is or was not there.  Inferences from observations that we can make in our own society may be entirely irrelevant when we look at another society.  In our society, for example, bathing once a week is considered dirty, and dirty is considered antisocial, and antisocial is very, very bad.  But do we have a right to make such implications?  Does dirty mean bad? And some cultures consider us rather dirty:  The Japanese, for example, wash themselves completely before getting into a bath.  Or, to take another example, ragged clothes may mean mental illness in the suburbs, but it just means poverty elsewhere.

This is often rooted in poor understanding:  We seldom have all the information we need to understand another group of people.  There are often reasons for "bizarre" behaviors that would make them seem less so.  In some countries, for example, water is less plentiful and the dryness evaporates most of our perspiration.  In poor countries, plumbing and clean water may be hard to find.  In cold countries, bathing may be downright dangerous.  We forget that our own grandparents rarely bathed more than once a week.  Besides, in many places, people do not have the rather intense attitude we have about body smells -- you don't have to be antiseptic to be clean.

It can also be a matter of self-fulfilling prophecies:  People often become what we expect them to be.  For a fat person, being "jolly" might mean acceptance, for example.  For some ethnic groups, you show your pride by exaggerating your "ethnicity."  American Indians of different tribes, for example, have adopted each others' dress, rituals, and art.  And it's Dutch  Americans  who hang wooden shoes on their doors!

With all these pitfalls to something so normal as stereotyping, it is no wonder we have problems!


All by itself, stereotyping can certainly lead to problems like discrimination.  But it doesn't account for the heat, the anger, we often see among prejudiced people.  Prejudice is often defined in terms of strong negative emotion -- where does the emotion come from?

If you recall, distress comes from failure to anticipate -- from incongruities and dissonance.  Let's look at some of the incongruities that can lead to hatred:

 Disruption of daily routine:   People who are "different" can disrupt your life.  In the English countryside, for example, there is a strong dislike for Gypsies.  They pull into these quaint, quiet English villages in their caravans, park on the roadsides, live outside their wagons, make music and dance, sell their services, tell fortunes, steal... and generally throw the village into turmoil!

The simplest example:  The "mentally ill" usually make us nervous.  They behave so unpredictably!

 Threat to group security:   These outsiders may be a threat to more than just peace and quiet.  Gypsies, for example, have earned at least some of their reputation for trouble.  Guest workers in Europe may bring somewhat more violent cultural habits with them.  City kids may bring more sexually promiscuous habits into the suburbs, etc., etc.

Understand that, while some of these fears may be based on unfounded stereotypes, some are quite legitimate concerns.  The motivation for having our own groups in the first place is to keep life safe, simple, and predictable, and outsiders may threaten that social order.

 Threat to the pocketbook:   Economic well-being is a central concern for most people.  But those whose economic well-being is threatened by outsiders are more likely to be angry about it.  Historically, we find...

        established groups against new groups;
        older immigrant groups against newer immigrant groups;
        poor whites in the old south vs poor blacks;
        Irish railroad workers vs Chinese railroad workers;
        Texas shrimpers vs Vietnamese shrimpers;
        poor laborers vs welfare recipients;
        established residents against guest-workers...

It is most often a matter of a poor, low-status group angry at a poorer, lower-status group that threatens to displace them.

 Threat to group integrity or identity:   An ethnic group can be defined in many ways... skin color, religious practices, language, political beliefs, dress, celebrations....  When the things that define the group are compromised in some way, so that the future of the group is at stake, people get "nervous."

The future of the group is most clearly to be found in its children, and so we would expect that that's where much of our concern should be:  What if they start acting like them? dressing like them?  talking like them?  believing what they believe?  dating each other?  marrying each other?

If your kid marries someone of a different religion, and their kids are raised in the other religion -- your grandchildren are "lost" to you.  You might as well have never had kids at all!  Or what if you son marries a German girl and goes to live there.  He and their kids are no longer Americans.  Your own descendants are foreigners!  Or if your grandchildren grow up speaking Spanish!  (It is said that the best way to take away a person's culture is to take away his language.  The Irish to the contrary, this often seems to be true.)

If your kid marries someone of a different race, what are your grandchildren?  Black or white?  The old tradition was that they were black, that the "blood" of the group with higher status was "tainted" by the blood of the group with the lower status.  Today, children of biracial marriages are more likely to consider themselves biracial, which is certainly more enlightened.  But think of the identity problem that comes with it when you live in a society that insists on classifying you one way or the other!

Maybe someday we'll all just consider ourselves human beings.

The preceding reasons for anger are, in fact, rather reasonable.  They are problems that we may make efforts to address.  There is another source of incongruity that is less reasonable:  The inferiority complex.

There is something wrong with me -- and you are reminding me of it!  My poverty or ignorance or stupidity or lack of success or unhappiness or insecurity or sexual frustration or marital problems or whatever... are your fault.  After all, before you came around, I didn't have these problems -- or didn't notice them as much.  Or perhaps I can't even figure out what is making me so angry -- it certainly can't be myself, so it must be you!

Further, weak people, frustrated people, often seek to lose their embarrassingly tiny identities in their group identities.  My  group  is great, so maybe a little of that greatness will rub off on  me.   And hatred of others helps to maintain the intensity of that group identity, just like our fervor for our favorite team becomes especially intense when the competition becomes intense!

The target of our anger may be a group which is causing us some real distress, such as economic competition or the other things mentioned above.  Or it may simply be a traditional, socially-sanctioned target (a scapegoat).  Either way, I've been told since childhood -- by my mom, my dad, my friends, my teachers, my preachers, my television set -- that we're better than you and that, therefore, I am better than you.

But there's that black guy with his Lincoln Continental -- where did he get the money?  And that woman, she's a lawyer -- wonder what she did to pass the bar?  And that Puerto Rican who gets all the girls -- what do they see in that guy anyway?

Under every superiority complex, they say, hides an inferiority complex.


Much bigotry is just an effort to maintain the status quo:  We're on top -- let's keep it that way.

But, to the extent that our conceptions of another people are misconceptions, we will be confronted with contradictions.  When we really look at these others, we see hints of their humanity, their needs, their talents, their good natures, the reasons for their behaviors, their ability to compete on an equal footing... and we need to defend against all this conflicting information.

After all, nice people like us don't hurt other nice people! (Remember?)

The most basic thing to do would be  denial:   The information has to be much stronger to get through.  For example, a woman may find that she has to work twice as hard to get recognition for her work.

Or we can engage in  distortion.   You can be labeled "the exception:" "One or two make it, every now and then."  This is usually accompanied by an explanation:  "His mother is white;"  "She's terribly masculine, probably a Lesbian."

Another way to distort is to  question the means  by which someone succeeded:  "All successful Italians got there through their mob connections;"  "She slept her way to the top."

Another one, when you cannot question their capabilities, is to  question their motives:   "They become doctors for the money."  A couple of Air Force officers told me once in all seriousness, "There are three kinds of women in the Air Force:  Lesbians, nymphomaniacs, and the ones who are looking for husbands."  In other words, they may be capable, but they certainly aren't noble or anything.

But there are worse ways to fix the dissonance:

 Discrimination:   Housing and jobs are the obvious ones.  Less obvious is "institutional discrimination" -- things that seem to be reasonable, but effectively discriminate anyway:  literacy tests for voting, height requirements for police, trailer laws in English villages....  And don't forget the power of the self-fulfilling prophecy:  If we deny certain people education, for example, they seem so ignorant, so perhaps we needn't bother to educate them; if we only permit them menial work, perhaps that's all their capable of; if we deny them access to decent housing, perhaps they like to live in squalor....

Further, we can threaten them (e.g. the Klan's cross-burnings), remove them (e.g. placing people on reservations or concentration camps), enslave them (e.g. forced labor, or economic enslavement, or just plain slavery), or simply destroy them (e.g. what the Nazi's attempted to do with Jews, Gypsies, homosexuals, and others).

Note:  It's easy to say all this evil is due to a Nazi mentality, or to some flaw in whites or Europeans or males or whatever.  But history shows that to be a prejudice in itself:  No ethnic group, race, religion, government... has shown itself to be above these evils.  When one group has power over another, that power seems to be -- inevitably, perhaps? -- abused.  A pessimistic conclusion, I'm afraid.

Copyright 1999, C. George Boeree