Tuesday, July 19, 2011

On stereotypes and how they drive

A real woman always keeps her house clean and organized, the laundry basket is always empty. She's always well-dressed, hair done. She never swears, behaves gracefully in all situations and circumstances. She has more than enough patience to take care of her family, always has a smile on her lips and a kind word for everyone.

Post this as your status if you, too, have just realized that you might be a man.

— recently seen on several female friends' Facebook statuses

Lately I've been thinking a lot about stereotypes. More accurately, I've been thinking about the process that causes us to stereotype other people, and what that habit might say about us.

Before I go any further, I have to confess: I stereotype people. I do. I think it comes out most strongly when I'm driving.

If I'm driving past a local retirement community and a Buick or an Oldsmobile pulls slowly into my lane, I make an immediate assumption about the driver's age.

If I see a shiny red convertible sportscar, I make an immediate assumption about the driver's age and gender.

If I'm following a large pickup with a certain accessory attached to the bumper, I make a whole set of immediate assumptions about the driver's age, gender, education level, and probably several other things.

But it doesn't stop there.

Based on those assumptions, I label. I categorize. I judge. And I mentally distance myself from the real people driving those vehicles.

The word stereotype was originally a printing word, having to do with printing from a solid plate of type (rather than movable type). This idea of a printed image being perpetuated without change later came to be applied to human attitudes, meaning "preconceived and oversimplified notion of characteristics typical of a person or group." (source: Online Etymology Dictionary)

The real danger of stereotypes is that they are reductive — they reduce a person to a thing. And once a person is reduced to a thing, I'm no longer obligated to treat him or her as a person, as a full-orbed human being created in the image of God, just like me.

Once a person is reduced to a thing, I'm no longer obligated to treat him or her as I would like to be treated.

Once a person is reduced to a thing, all sorts of horrors become possible: rape, slavery, genocide, trafficking... to name just a few.

What got me thinking in this direction was reading and listening to the words of a well-known pastor. This pastor is loved and respected by many of my good friends, but I find myself having a strong aversive reaction to everything he says. As I was trying to figure out why, I realized that he tends to speak using lots of hyperbole and stereotype.

Hyperbole from the pulpit I can handle. Stereotype, not so much.

Whether based on mannerisms, choice of clothing, mode of transportation, or anything else, stereotypes are an insult to the humanity of the person being stereotyped. And because that person bears God's image, it's an insult to God.

I think that might mean that stereotyping is sin.

What do you think?

* I started composing this post while reading a book during a cosmetically-forced lull. As my hair and face were absorbing the beautifiers I'd applied, my mind was absorbing theology. So stereotypical... yet so not.



  1. I love everything you wrote today. Thanks!


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